Flights – Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

Flights

“Caelum non animum qui trans mare currunt” Horace Epistles I. II. 27

If you Google Horace’s quote you will end up with various interpretations, Wikipedia telling you “Those who hurry across the sea change the sky [upon them], not their souls or state of mind”, the Irish Times (and Goodreads) “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean” and a lose interpretation by Robert Demaria Jr, in the introduction of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” as “no matter how far away you travel you are always stuck with yourself”, however intpreted I think it is an apt quote to use when talking about Olga Tokarczuk’s latest release “Flights”.

Whilst not strictly “epistles” per se, Olga Tokarczuk’s latest book is a collection of short stories, fragments or jottings, about the narrator’s travels, a seemingly random collection of vignettes, short pilgrimages, all related to journeys, some Biblical;

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that – in spite of all the risks involved – a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ask, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

Using an engaging journal style, a raft of “travelling” subjects are addressed, transience:

Enormous airports assemble us together on the promise of connection with our next flight; it is an order of transferal and of timetables in the service of motion. But even if we had nowhere else to go in the coming couple of days, it would still be worth getting to know these spaces.
Once they were in outskirts, supplementing cities, like train stations. But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that today they a whole identity of their own. Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports, as workplaces and places to sleep. It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.

Time;

Every traveller’s time is a lot of times in one, quite a wide array. It is island time, archipelagos of order in an ocean of chaos; it is the time produced by the clocks in train stations, everywhere varying; conventional time, mean time, which no one ought to take too seriously. Hours disappear on an airplane aloft, dawn issues fast with afternoon and evening already on its heels. The hectic time of big cities you’re in for just a bit, wanting to fall into the clutches of its evening, and the lazy time of uninhabited prairies seen from the air.

Always the journey itself hovering, shimmering in the background;

Straight lines – how humiliating they were. How they destroyed the mind. What perfidious geometry, how it makes us into idiots – there and back, a parody of travel. Going forth merely in order to return again. Speeding up just to put on the brakes.

Our narrator has a fascination with the macabre, freaks, the inner workings of the human body, as a result her journeys include visits to museums, places where stuffed bodies are on display, remembrances of public autopsies, limbs, foetus’ contained in jars, there is a sense of our seeker wanting to understand the human body, if she can understand such, she can understand God, creation – “There is no other access to other people or to the world other than by way of the body.”

This is an ephemeral collection, with the very nature of transience forming part of the narrative, which is a collection of diverse voices, styles, blending fiction and essay, and tales across a multitude of locations, all questioning the sense of “home”.

‘In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.’

Interestingly the original Polish title for this book is “Bieguni” and as Kapka Kassabova has explained in her review of this book in “The Guardian”, ”The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement, in the tradition of the travelling yogi, wandering dervishes or itinerant Buddhist monks who survive on the kindness of strangers.” The section titled “Flights” explores a ‘bieguni’ woman, living outside of a railway station.

With numerous references to ancient writers, travellers, Gods (for example Kairos) the threads of a seemingly disconnected collection of fragments slowly weave into a holistic rumination on human frailty, transience, home and time. A book that lingers, one that you could dip into and out of, although I was very comfortable reading it from cover to cover, like poetic works it is one that could be revisited ad-hoc – a travel “thought for the day”? Having been a follower of Olga Tokarczuk’s works in English, “House of Day, House of Night”, and “Primeval and Other Times”, two other titles I have read, I am very much looking forward to Jennifer Croft’s translation of the controversial epic “The Books of Jacob”, a book that won the Nike Award in 2015 (Poland’s pre-eminent literary award), just like this novel that took out the same award in 2008.

 

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August – Christa Wolf (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

August

My second review of a book titled “August” for Women In Translation month, this one from Germany and Christa Wolf, beautifully and eloquently translated by Katy Derbyshire, whose translation work I have come across before when reading the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlisted “Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer.

As the publisher, Seagull Books tells us:

August is Christa Wolf’s last piece of fiction, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. In it, she revisits her stay at a tuberculosis hospital in the winter of 1946, a real life event that was the inspiration for the closing scenes of her 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. This time, however, her fictional perspective is very different. The story unfolds through the eyes of August, a young patient who has lost both his parents to the war. He adores an older girl, Lilo, a rebellious teenager who controls the wards. Sixty years later, August reflects on his life and the things that she taught him.

This is a beautifully presented book, as are all of the Seagull Books titles, as Tristan Foster pointed out in a recent review of Georg Trakl’s “Sebastian Dreaming” at Asymptote Journal.

It is not possible to discuss a Seagull book without discussing Seagull Books. Since 1982, this Kolkata publishing house has been salvaging literature which time may have otherwise cast aside. Not only do they pluck from obscurity, they also present literature with a seriousness and gravitas befitting an era preceding our sales-obsessed one. Their books are less consumer goods than they are artefacts: house designer Sunandini Banerjee’s sensitivity and skill result in hardbacks with covers that bloom like rainforest flowers.

“August” is no exception to this observation. The only criticism I have is that it is a very (very) short book, a short story of 74 pages, and the text populating only half of each page, and once you are immersed in Christa Wolf’s work you feel like reading more. Maybe the book could have contained a few short stories.

Stunningly stark, the haunting loneliness of being hospitalised and ostracised from such a young age, is conveyed through the simple prose, you feel as though each word was perfectly chosen;

August doesn’t like the outskirts of cities. The huge, ugly shopping centres with their oversized carparks. The car showrooms outbidding each other’s advertising claims. The fast-food restaurants that August never sets foot inside. He usually brings his own sandwiches along, although they’re not as lovingly made when Trude was alive. He’s not hungry yet. He has to concentrate on the motorway near the city, which gets more and more crowded with every year, on the building sites that never end, only change position. On the traffic jams they cause, which makes the journey longer. August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with the children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It has simply turned out that way. There’s been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

A simple life told through a simple tale, I am (yet again) reminded of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), however in this case the simplicity of a simple life is barer.

Dipping into familiar territory of an unreliable memory, the ageing process and the march of time, the simplicity of August’s life still shows through as emotionally complex, and fraught with ignorance:

…there was a good reason why God gave us the power to forget.

Simple, a work that can be read in a single sitting, and given it was written in a single sitting it is probably the preferred way to approach this book, but also very moving and touching, it makes a great introductory work into Christa Wolf’s oeuvre, even if it contains her only male protagonist, and it is her last written piece!!!

Kudos to Seagull Books for bringing this work to the attention of English language readers, a “women in translation” writer we should be discussing more often.

August – Romina Paula (translated by Jennifer Croft)

August

Since 2014 I have actively participated in “Women In Translation Month” an event set up and pursued in earnest by Meytal Radzinski at http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk – since 2014 I have seen a massive increase in interest in the month, an understanding of the limited amount of translated fiction by female writers but interestingly enough there hasn’t been a shift in the number of books being published, it still hovers around the poor 30% of all translated fiction.

Given August is “Women In Translation Month” I thought it was a good idea to read and review two translated books titled “August” written by women.

First up today is Romina Paula’s book, from Argentina, originally titled “Agusto”, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Feminist Press.

This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.

The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;

Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.

Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.

During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.

As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?

And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.

The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.

It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…

As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.

Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity,  grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!!

Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi (translated by Jessica Sequeira)

Our-Dead-World-COVERLatin American fiction has always had a connection to the bizarre, from numerous countries you can find dark horror tales, bleak speculative narratives containing the stuff of nightmares, bodies, zombies, all blended with the everyday. Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, César Aira a few names that spring to mind, however it is not only the male writers who explore these dark depths, as Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi has proven with her short story collection “Our Dead World”.

This is the first Bolivian fiction I have encountered and even my massive reference guide “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopaedia” has no entries for Bolivia, therefore it was a revelation when reading a number of the stories, the ones that contained cultural references, but more on that later. According to census data quoted at Wikipedia, “There are approximately three dozen native groups totalling approximately half of the Bolivian population – the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America.”, and this melting-pot and indigenous theme runs throughout Liliana Colanzi’s book. Although the nuances and slight references would obviously be lost on most readers, myself included, where our understanding of Bolivian culture is virtually non-existent.

A collection that contains eight short stories, we have the mystical, the metaphysical, a collection of dark tales blended with local folklore, references to Aztec human sacrifice, the afterlife…

I remembered the story my nana Elsa told me once, about an uncle the devil possessed in body and soul. Elsa’s uncle sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a house for his mother, an old lady. The devil gave him powers. He could wake up anywhere in the world just by wishing it, and also knew how to do tricks. Want to eat? he would ask my nana, and put a stone in an empty burlap bag. When Elsa opened the bad, she’d find it bursting with white or sweet potatoes. Want to see a viper? he’d ask, and throw his belt on the ground. As soon as it touched the earth it turned into a snake that fled slithering from the room. One day he died from a sudden illness. When his relatives lifted the casket to take it away, the realized it was light as a husk. They opened it and found only a few small black stones inside. The story gave me nightmares, and Mama threatened to throw Elsa out of the house if she kept making up nonsense.

This story, “Alfredito”, blends the spiritual (the visitation of ghosts), the human (“beginning to decompose and feed the worms”) and the everyday mundane (childhood recollections).

As with numerous adult stories of despair we also have the rational correlation back to childhood images, in one case a pig being slaughtered, in another a mother burning the family history, these events are bleak and “do permanent harm”. As a reader you feel as though our narrator, our writer, is exploring her own inner demons and is revealing them along with her depressive, angst ridden, nihilist views;

But how could I tell the others about the Wave/ At Cornell nobody believes in anything. Many hours are wasted discussing ideas, theorizing ethics and aesthetics, speedwalking to avoid the flash of others’ looks, organizing symposiums and colloquiums, but people wouldn’t recognize and angel if it blew in their faces. That’s how things are. The Wave arrives on campus at night on tiptoe and sweeps away seven students, and all the doctors can think to do is fill your pockets with Trazodone or give you a lamp with ultraviolet light.

As mentioned local folklore is woven through the fabric of these stories; “The Collas even had a name for the bearer of bad omens: Q’encha.” One of the short narratives, “Story with Bird” uses the stories of the indigenous Ayoreos collected testimonies taken from anthropologist Lucas Bessire’s “Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life”;

I don’t know what story to tell. I don’t know what I’ll say, I don’t know. I don’t know my story.

the plight of the natives relayed to us, as their past is enveloped by progress and their lives fall apart, so does our story, it disintegrates in front of your eyes.

There was a water tank. Full. A white man. So fat, wearing a red shirt. We waited. Trembling. Blood in the water. Lots of blood. We didn’t sleep. We ran. Crying, we ran. Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack

A modern day Latin American Edgar Allen Poe, these are creepy tales, the stuff of nightmares, for example, the tale “Cannibal”, the opening line reading “The day we arrive in Paris the police confirm the cannibal is hiding in the city.”, will their paths cross? A tense story where the undercurrent of evil is lurking forever in the background.

I would be interested to know if the stories in this collection are arranged in sequential order, as they were written, as the further you read the more experimental and quirky the works become,. Is this effect simply the progression and development of Liliana Colanzi as a writer or is the arrangement part of the overall effect of disintegration, decay, a descent into chaos? Graffiti from the back of toilet doors is quoted, including the striking though and even the passing of time, everything is reduced to noise…

At times this did feel like an uneven collection, however the experimental form can lend itself to this type of criticism, some of the stories less accessible than others. I am glad I have discovered a work from Bolivia, and for it to be via a female writer is an extra joy, a worthy inclusion to my long list of “Women In Translation” reads.

Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry

AntigonaGonzalez

Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

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

FeverDream

Today a short review for a short book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swallowing Mercury – Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

SwallowingMercury

I started my 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist reading journey with the bleak “fairy tale” about the sex industry in Germany, Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” and a lot further along in my reading travels for the prize I have come across another fable, Wioletta Greg’s “Swallowing Mercury”.

Originally titled “Unripe Fruit”, in the Polish version, this is a short, sharp, dark fable, dreamlike in its presentation, with poetic sentences, this is an hallucinatory dark and grim coming of age story.

She brought me home in February. Still bleeding after childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my wrist to ward off evil spells and fell asleep for a few hours. It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back. (p2)

A very short book, running to only 146 pages, this is Wiola’s story, told in twenty-three short vignettes. We learn about her father the taxidermist, her black cat, local fables and old-wives tales, along with details of her match box label collection, all set during the era of Poland transitioning from communism to democracy.

In May 1984, I set out for church carrying a bundle of sweet flag, which I had picked that morning by the pond and adorned with ribbons. Water dripped from the bouquet onto my Sunday shoes. The church was filled with the smell of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog. My head started to spin. When the parish priest began to read a passage about the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the boat-shaped pulpit sailed off with him into the unknown. I slid from the bench down to the floor. They carried me outside. A woman drew a cross on my forehead with her spit. (p45)

We have memorable historical events, like Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland, the preparations (and division) within the community, told through the innocent, honest eyes of youth. Wiola connected to the natural world, an internalising youth, exploring bogs, swamps and the flora and fauna, observing her immediate family with a wry honest eye.

Then I sat at the table which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread. (p 19)

The language creating a vivid scene containing the small village sounds and smells, expertly taking the reader to 1980’s rural Poland. It is no surprise to learn that author Wioletta Greg has previously published six volumes of poetry, with her collection “Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance” being shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, a Canadian Prize with a $65,000 first prize (with $10,000 for each shortlisted poet), it is self-proclaimed as the “world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English”, and gives two prizes, one for living poet residing in Canada and an international prize. Although the Griffin Poetry Prize website says “a…collection of poetry written in English” Wioletta Greg’s work was one of two translated works on the shortlist of four, it was translated by Marek Kazmierski, and lost out to Michael Longley’s “The Stairwell”.

The book is resplendent with the sounds, sights and smells of rural Poland; “After the rain, the air smelled of watermelon pulp.” (p 70)

This is a highly readable and enjoyable work, and given my past dislike of coming-of-age stories it has managed to jump a significant subconscious bias with my reading. A welcome inclusion on the 2017 longlist, this is a book that I would like to see travel at least to the shortlist.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? The brevity may go against it when it comes to the main gong, however it is a very assured work, a folk tale that subtly presents the political changes in Poland through messages on match box labels, or innocent views of a town preparing for the Pope’s visit. I think the darkness will not appeal to all audiences and therefore think a shortlisting is probably as far as it will travel, but it is a book I urge people to explore, one to add to your “Women in Translation” reading lists, you will not be disappointed.