Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra)

MirrorShoulderSignal

Sonja is in her forties, she’s single and she really wants to get her driver’s licence.

With an unsettling opening we learn of Sonja’s tension when driving in traffic, her imagined escape, a picnic in a cemetery, she really wants to progress but she also wants to escape. Within pages we feel Sonja’s angst, her repression.

Dorthe Nors novel “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” uses an unusual protagonist, a character who we don’t often see as a lead player, a loner, a woman who moved from her country upbringing to Copenhagen, one who is struggling with her family relationships, self employed as a crime fiction translator, she spends more time alone than in the company of others.

The title “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” refers to her driving lessons, the core theme throughout, however the instructions are also an allegory, the “mirror” looking to the rear, a reflection what has happened behind you, in the past, the “shoulder” the immediate vicinity, what is happening in the now and the “signal” the future, where she is heading, what are her intentions. Add to this Sonja’s major problem of learning to drive, her inability to change gears, “you cannot go from second to third by taking a shortcut”, she needs to be meticulous when moving forward, there is no diagonal.

A novel that moves between the “mirror, shoulder, signal” phases of Sonja’s life. Her immediate angst, her massage remediation, the masseuse relieves and gives her tension, her awful relationship with her driving instructors, who create tension, and her battles to re-establish a relationship with her sister, who had “been a stowaway in rolling wrecks, a barn-dance femme-fatale, and the belle of clubs and gym meets.”

A woman who has no major future plans, her “signal” is represented by references to a discussion with a “curry-colored tunic” wearing fortune teller, a discussion she cannot recall. She believes she has “lost her right to imagine her future”.

The past is where Sonja retreats, to make sense of her situation, a place filled with disappearing into lonely rye fields, hiding in trees, and the puzzle of how she lost her elder sister?

Taking a walk with her masseuse’s hiking group, they are instructed to connect with nature;

Even Sonja’s found a cushion of moss. She walks around with cushion in hand so that it looks as if she’s taking part. The moss feels wet underneath, she can feel the dampness on her palm, and she sniffs the cushion too; it smells of sex, she thinks. Yes, it smells of composting toilets, school camps, secret forts. It smells of the upholstery in scrapped automobiles, the sour tops of fruit juice bottles, and children in grungy undies. (pp38)

A woman who has “always shied away from others demanding she adapt” Sonja keeps referring to “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” (pp66) she is “not being able to fill her life in the right way”, a woman “astray” in the big city.

This novel is moving in its exploration of loneliness, despair and single character focus. In a way it reminded me of last year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), although completely different in place and style, the exploration of a simple life, a single life, creating depth to a central character usually anonymous in literature. This year Dorthe Nors has done something similar for the forgotten female voice.

An unsettling, moving but readable work, this is a nice addition to the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist. Will it progress further? I can see this book resonating more with female readers than male ones, however it is unique in its exploration of a middle-aged woman. As Grant at 1st reading, https://1streading.wordpress.com/, said “Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion.” I’m a little more upbeat than Grant about its future chances on the lists, however wouldn’t be at all surprised if it fell at the first hurdle either.

Next up from the Man Booker International Prize list I will look at a book where severed heads play an important role – yes a very diverse list indeed in 2017!

Bricks and Mortar – Clemens Meyer (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

BricksAndMortar

Once upon a time there lived a little girl who was stubborn and inquisitive, and whenever her parents told her to do something she refused. How could things possibly go well for her? One day she said to her parents: “I’ve heard so much about Mother Trudy. I’d like to go visit her. They say that her house is quite strange and that odd things happen there. That’s made me really curious about her.”

The girl’s parents gave her strict orders not to go near the house, and they told her: “Mother Trudy is an evil woman, who does wicked things. If you go to see her, you’re no longer our daughter.”

But the child paid no attention to what her parents said and went to see Mother Trudy anyway. When she arrived at the house, Mother Trudy asked her: “Why are you so pale?”

“I saw something that really scared me.”

“What did you see?”

“On your staircase I saw a black man.”

“That was just the charcoal burner.”

“Then I saw a green man.”

“That was just a huntsman.”

“And then I saw a blood red man.”

“That was just the butcher.”

“Oh, Mother Trudy, I was so scared. I looked through the window and couldn’t see you, but I did see a devil with a fiery head.”

“Aha!” she said. “Then you saw the witch in all her finery. I’ve been hoping that you would come here, and I’ve been waiting for a long time. You can provide me with some light.”

And with that, she turned the girl into a block of wood and threw it on the fire. And when it was blazing, she sat down beside it, warmed herself up, and said: “Now that really does give off a nice bright light.”

  • ‘Mother Trudy’ from “The Bicentennial Edition, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Translated by Maria Tatar)

 

German Fairy Tales (or Märchen) take on various forms, we’ve all heard of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’, probably less so ‘Mother Trudy’, but Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” picks the threads of these classic tales, mentioning a few by name, and then represents them in the reality of modern Germany, from the period just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall to (possibly) the current day. But the tale of a developing, changing Germany is told through the eyes of the sex industry. Can “Little Red Riding Hood” be linked to the “red light industry”? Is “Mother Trudy”, one of the tales recalled by our first narrator, a sex-worker, a metaphor for all female sex-workers?

And this is no short fairy tale, running to 653 pages, it is a long work indeed.

In this novel the character’s blur, the dead talk, people take the lead role and then move back into the shadows, time is not linear, we have one character talking about 9/11 and it is 1999!!! Told in a multitude of voices, you are not always certain who is the narrator, nor their role in this kaleidoscope, rest assured things do draw together the further you travel into this melting pot.

An exploration of capitalism, economies, a unified Germany (and sex), this book, at no stage, enters cliché mode, the football hooligan who becomes a landlord for the apartments used by the prostitutes, gives economic rants about the number of workers, the rooms, euros and then refers to Stanisław Lem’s “Solaris”. An alcoholic ex-jockey spends his nights looking for his young daughter who has become a street worker, a policeman who works on a cold case of three bodies found in the bottom of a peat bog;

am I the only person who sees that? That the markets and the marketplaces are becoming more linked, steel and concrete town halls, the meat markets expanding, the bricks and mortar, sticks and stones, the rock growing, in a red-lit circle where everything’s linked, the rubbish truck, the fat woman, the Coke, the Viagras, the blockers, uppers and downers, lost cats, the right to sexual self-determination, scraps of memory like old police badges, the Angels on their motorbikes, peat mosses, flyovers, sixty-six municipal brothels in 1865, trade chronicles, he burrows in the old files, real estate on silver strings leading all the way to Italy, and the fall of the real-estate boss Silvio Lübbke, three bullets, boom, boom, Dead Peppers Alley, houses for pocket money, clues, clues, the country air so clean and pure, soon they’ll be building here but we’ll stop the diggers, the question is, who brings three bodies out to this mire, the swamped puddle, where everyone knows they won’t decompose, when you can dig holes in the sandy ground of the heath or drive out to the forest lakes like the ‘Blue Eye’, and there must be anglers there who discover the remotest of lakes, the woods arching around the north-eastern belt of the suburbs and incorporated villages to the south, all of if as flat as a pancake. (pp 176-177)

Uppers, downers, alcohol, tobacco and Viagra, each scene the language and style mirrors the drug of choice, with sentences lingering or rapid and short, moving from 1st to 2nd to 3rd person, each scene descends or ascends holding a mirror to a seedy existence, it can be pacy or languid, an hallucinogenic romp, but there is hardly any colour here, it’s all shadows nightclubs, swamps and darklands.

As Meyer says himself, this is an “unorganized flow” (should that read “disorganised flow”?), you need to allow the language, the mood, the environment of each section, voice, character to simply sink in, there is no point in over analysis;

A park opposite. Snow on the trees, towers behind the park, behind the trees, far away or very close by, the distances change, tower blocks connected by bridges, corridors of glass, A temple-like low building with a curved roof among the white and green of the park, for the trees aren’t bare, winter in this city, but days, you remember them now, that smelled of spring, the air suddenly mild and the sky clear, no grey any more from which the snow fell wet on your face, but then another icy gust of wind that grabbed you on your paths through the night, on your way along the neon alleys, along the river, across empty parks like small woods, where are you going? And what are you looking for? (pp 411)

Each section (chapter?) has a reference to “Bricks and Mortar”, in various guises, nicknames, buildings, retaining walls, realigning a river’s flow, stability, and the real estate industry. The juxtaposition of the Communism/Capitalism is subtle throughout, likely due to the blurring timelines, but it is the one constant subplot, at times is can be a little more blatantly pointed out as in;

There was always plenty to see on International Worker’s Day at the racetrack, on the terrace with bubbly and finger food. (pp 460)

A bleak fairy tale of a unified Germany, told through the eyes of a sector that either boomed or plummeted depending upon what side of the wall you came from, and whether you were the exploited or the exploiter. Using a plethora of styles this is a complicated and many layered work, with sub-plots a plenty, including the ex-jockey’s child prostitute daughter, the bodies in the bog, diamond smuggling, to list just a few. There is reference to the Prostitution Act of 2002 and the changes that brought into place, although the one (slight) failing I found with the book is that he female characters appear more as meat or commodities rather than human, with the male characters getting more depth to their motivations and behaviours, however this may be an intentional portrayal as in the industry they are forever changing and are treated in that manner.

After the Wall, things really took off on the building sites. The cranes grew up to the sky, that’s how he’d put it. Shut up. He drives through the suburbs, the high-rise estates, Schönewweide’s not such a pretty meadow as the name suggests, he stopped at some building site, got out of the car and took a few steps toward the scaffolding, breathed in the smell of dust, earth and damp, breathed deeply. Sometimes he wishes he could stand on roofs again, walk along scaffolds, gut flats, make the mixture, breathe in that smell. (pp 584)

A book that is not for the faint-hearted, it contains numerous descriptions of sexual perversions, however not without context and not in any way gratuitous. As I mentioned before this is not a clichéd work, a many levelled construction all mixed up, hallucinogenic style, throw in a hint of dreams, a cemetery, a crematorium, even Japanese scenery, and you’ve only scratched the surface of Clemens Meyer’s novel that was shortlisted for the 2013 German Book Prize. Keeping the tradition of German Fairy Tales, this is a dark dark Fairy Tale, why not throw another young girl on the fire the brighten things up?

Can it win the Man Booker International Prize? It is hard to judge, as this is a book that will certainly polarise the judges, it would, therefore, be a bold decision to declare it the winner, even if it is worthy of the top gong. Personally I rate it highly, however time will tell if my tastes align with the judges (and the Shadow Jury)!

 

 

2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury Response

Here is the official Shadow Jury response to the longlist announcement made last week.

mbi2017-logo

The Shadow Panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize would like to extend its congratulations and thanks to the official judges for their hard work in whittling down the 126 entries to the thirteen titles making up the longlist.  In some ways, it is a somewhat unexpected selection, with several surprising inclusions, albeit more in terms of the lack of fanfare the works have had than of their quality.  However, it is another example of the depth of quality in fiction in translation, and it is heartening to see that there is such a wealth of wonderful books making it into our language which even devoted followers of world literature haven’t yet sampled.  Of course, at this point we must also thank the fourteen translators who have made this all possible, and we will endeavour to highlight their work over the course of our journey.

 

In the second year of the prize’s new incarnation, there is a definite sense of quality being prioritised, with many of the titles promising heavy topics and quality writing (we note, with trepidation, that the longlist is also literally far heavier than its 2016 counterpart).  This second year of the MBIP book prize is also the first of the post-Tonkin era, and it will be interesting to see what effects the departure of the longtime IFFP/MBIP Chair will have.  Will the new age bring a different feel to the prize, ushering in a longlist notable more for the writing and less for emotional turmoil? Time will tell…

 

Turning to the actual books, we note a pleasing spread of languages (eleven) and countries (twelve), with five of the longlisted titles by writers hailing from outside Europe.  There are some notable omissions, though, with no books translated from Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese or Russian (a language particularly poorly represented over the past few years).  The list of writers shows a mix of old friends (Ismail Kadare, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Yan Lianke, Alain Mabanckou) and newcomers to the prize (Wioletta Greg, Clemens Meyer, Roy Jacobsen), some of whom will no doubt become new favourites for many readers.

 

While the female authors longlisted (in particular Samanta Schweblin) should prove to be strong contenders, the fact that only three women made the cut is disappointing.  However, we fully acknowledge that this is less a reflection on the judges than further evidence of the gender imbalance in what is published in translation in the UK (it would be enlightening, and perhaps useful, to learn how many of the 126 submissions were by women).  On that point, it was interesting to note in the week leading up to this announcement the start of a new initiative, The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.  Hopefully, this will encourage the commissioning of more translations of works by female authors, which may then encourage more submissions for the MBIP in future years.

 

Another interesting feature of the list is the spread of titles published by independent presses and major publishing houses.  Peirene Press’s six-year run may have come to an end, but that has more to do with the high standard of the competition than with weak entries.  Other small presses to miss out include And Other Stories, Comma Press, and Istros Books (although we feel it is only a matter of time before they finally achieve a longlisting).  Among the small presses who did manage to have titles selected, particular congratulations must go to both MacLehose Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions, with two nominations apiece rewarding their commitment to high-quality, challenging literature.  We were particularly pleased by the recognition of Mathias Énard’s novel Compass; perhaps this decision will go some way to righting the wrong of the omission of his work Zone from the 2015 IFFP longlist (a decision we at the Shadow Panel saw fit to rectify…).

 

Zone was the first book ever called in by the Shadow Panel, and one of our main tasks after the longlist announcement this year was to decide whether this was required again.  It is no secret that Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream would have been the automatic pick, but thankfully the official panel has made that decision for us.  Works that were perhaps unlucky not to be chosen include Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Marie Sizun’s His Father’s Daughter and Sjón’s Moonstone, yet the only other title we seriously considered calling in was László Krasznahorkai’s War and War.  However, a combination of his previous success in both the MBIP and the American Best Translated Book Award and doubts as to whether the novel was eligible (or even submitted) have led us to decide not to do so.

 

Therefore, we set off on our journey at the same point as the real judges, ready to explore the thirteen titles selected for the official longlist.  However, this is where our paths will (and should) diverge.  Over the coming months, our eight shadow judges will do their best to examine these books and explain why they were selected (or question those decisions).  We give the longlist a cautious nod of approval; the shortlist, of course, is another matter entirely.

Man Booker International Prize 2017 Longlist

mbi2017-logo

The longlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize has been announced, with the five judges (Chair Nick Barley, Daniel Hahn, Elif Shafak, Chika Unigwe and Helen Mort) serving up thirteen novels.

Initial thoughts are the usual grumblings, there are only three women writers on the list, again under represented as they are in publication, there are no books from Spain on the list for the second year running, and the list contains a large number of “tomes”, Clemens Meyers’ “Bricks and Mortar” weighing in at 653 pages and the other Fitzcarraldo Editions nominee “Compass” by Mathias Énard coming in at 480 pages!!!

The shadow jury will have their work cut out to get through the thirteen titles before the shortlist announcement on 20 April with the winner being announced on 14 June 2017.

Here are the titles on the 2017 longlist (links to other Shadow Jury member’s reviews are listed with links to my reviews via the titles themselves);

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

David’s Book World Review

Stu’s review

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books

1st reading review

Stu’s review

David’s Book World review

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

Stu’s review

“War and Turpentine” by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker

Dolce Bellezza review

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

1st reading review

David’s Book World review

Dolce Bellezza review

“The Traitor’s Niche” by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker

1st reading review

“Fish Have No Feet” by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press

“The Explosion Chronicles” by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus

“Black Moses” by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail

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

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

1st Reading review

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

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

1st Reading review

Dolce Bellezza review

A Little Blog of Books review