The Barefoot Woman – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

Barefoot Woman

“Don’t bear any children, because when you bring them into this world you’re giving them death. You’re not bearers of life anymore, you’re bearers of death.” (p22)

Reports vary on the extent of the Rwandan genocide that occurred in 1994, depending upon the source the numbers fall between 500,000 and one million deaths. An estimated 70% of the Tutsi population were slaughtered, along with 30% of the Pygmy Batwa people.  Tutsi writer Scholastique Mukasonga had settled in France two years prior to the genocide, later leaning that twenty seven of her family members had been massacred.

Prior to fleeing to Burindi and then onto France, Scholastique Mukasonga and her family were displaced, along with a large number of other Tutsi people, to the Bugesera district of Rwanda, an underdeveloped and harsh region. It is the experiences of this life in exile that is the subject of her latest work to be translated in English, ‘The Barefoot Woman’ (tr. Jordan Stump). These tales form an homage to her slain mother, the central driver of each of the ten chapters.

Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body. (p9)

A powerful, moving and heartbreaking opening to a book that shakes you on almost every page, this is a story of exile, survival, of extremely inhumane acts against the Tutsi. The simple things in life become something to celebrate, to share with her readers, celebration for things we take for granted, like the home;

An inzu (and I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words French gives me to describe it sounds contemptuous: hut, shanty, shack…). There are precious few houses life Stefania’s left in Rwanda today. Now they’re in museums, life the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of the young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar. How I wish the lines I write on this page could be the path that leads me back to Stefania’s house! (pg 30-31)

A simple foodstuff, like bread, has a raft of associated rituals, memories and actions, a whole chapter alone is dedicated to ‘bread’. And there is the sharing of traditions;

Sorghum is harvested in July, at the start of the dry season. But before that, when the heads have already formed but the grains aren’t quite dry yet, my mother celebrated Umuganura. Umuganura is the name of the festival and also of the sorghum paste you have to eat for the occasion. There was no question of harvesting before the whole family had eaten the first sorghum paste, in accordance with the ritual. No ethnologist had told us that what we were doing was celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, but we knew that Umuganura marked the start of a new year, that this was the time to make wishes so the year ushered in by the sorghum would bring us good fortune. Back then, we knew nothing of the white people’s New Year’s Day. (pgs 43-44)

Colonisation, and the role of the Belgians, their introduced customs, plants, the fact that the Huta authorities were put in charge by the Belgians are also peppered throughout the work;

In the Rwanda of the Belgians or President Kayibanda, joining the church was the surest, smoothest path to “civilization.” In seminaries and convent schools, the clothes, the food, the bedding, everything – or almost – was just like the white people’s. If you were properly fervent in your obedience to the rules of conduct and piety that were imposed on you, then without too much effort you could enter the much-envied ranks of the evolved people. (pgs 90-91)

This collection of what it means to be ostracised, exiled, highlighting numerous small details of not only colonisation, but also the humiliation of extradition in your own country. Details such as the state of one’s feet, the Tutsi in exile worked barefoot, therefore their feet were worn, damaged, cracked. In school they were branded lesser citizens due to the state of their feet! (Hence the book’s title).

Scholastique Mukasonga’s first novel to be translated into English, ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ (tr. Melanie Mauther), was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2016 and made the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. And instead of a fictionalised account of life as a Tutsi exile, here is a collection on memories, but memories that are not only brutal or shocking, such as the horrific incidents of rape, but also delicate stories of pride, resistance and survival.

A moving and educational work from a voice that has rightfully been published in numerous languages, this is another poignant work from Scholastique Mukasonga and one that should be more widely read. If only the stories of the horrors that exiled people suffered under their original country’s regimes, or more stories of the brutality of colonisation were published, maybe a little more compassion from our world leaders would be forthcoming.

Review copy supplied to me courtesy of the publisher.

Advertisements

Aviaries – Zuzana Brabcová (tr. Tereza Novická)

aviaries

In his “Preface” to ‘L’Assommoir’ Émile Zola claimed the novel “is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people that does not lie and that smells of the common people. And readers should not conclude that the common people as a whole are bad, for my characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.”

The protagonist narrator of Zuzana Brabcová’s last novel, ‘Aviaries’, Alžběta is a common person, and is linked inextricably to Émile Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’;

Underneath the mattress

The trap snapped shut and firmly clamped around my memory. On February 18,1961, my mom had wedged a book underneath my mattress to make sure I’d be sleeping on a flat surface. She forgot about it. Hanging from a long string, a monkey-shaped rattle quivered above me, and I didn’t take my eyes off it for a single moment. They say the blind live in time, not space. If that’s true, I was a blind person back then. All of Grandpa’s clocks ticked away within my veins, and in my left hemisphere, my grandma diced apples from the garden for strudel.
Mom’s friend later took the crib for her own child. She discovered the forgotten book underneath the mattress. It was Zola’s
L’Assommoir. (p69)

Whilst Zola’s “project is indebted to the Positivist philosopher’s isolation of three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment”, Zuzana Brabcová’s novel adds in the influence of literature, literally sleeping on a book, which can determine behavior and in this case fate.

‘Aviaries’ is a collection of fragments, labelled from December 20, 2011 to February 19, 2015, however they are not simply diary entries, there are recollections, newspaper headlines, interior monologues, dreams, excerpts from prose, poetry and psalms (including a passage from C.G. Jung’s essay on the “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore” from 1951 and Oliver Sack’s “An Anthropologist on Mars, 1995). This is a work full of contradictions, that move the reader in contradictory directions, from anger to empathy within a paragraph. It is not unusual for a sentence to spin off in a tangent. All adding to the fragmentary nature of the book;

This frightens me: what if disintegration into prime elements, the fragmentation into particulars, is also true for other phenomena, and reality will churn before my eyes in an incomprehensible muddle? (p78)

Our narrator is from the fringes, being treated for mental illness, recently made redundant with no prospect of reemployment – although she tries – she spends her days emailing her dumpster diving daughter – who is going out with Bob Dylan – and sharing her time and space with a homeless alcoholic who has had “a tumor the size if a lemon removed from his brain”, a soul mate, Melda, who she met in the neurological ward of the local hospital.

“I have no money,” I said to keep the conversation going. “I have no money, no job, no family. Apart from Alice, that is, who’s found lifelong lover in the flap of a discarded wallet in a dumpster, and my sister, Nadia, whose sets all burned down.”
And suddenly, with no warning, Doctor Gnuj quite unexpectedly fixed on me his brown-pink gaze, matching the waiting room, the gaze of a polyp: “Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars! Do you even notice the world around you?”
I do. Don’t you worry. I know well enough what the world around me lives for: the season of wine tastings and exhibitions of corpses. (pgs 31-32)

A deeply moving work of social exclusion, it is akin to William Kennedy’s ‘Ironweed’ on magic mushrooms, a melancholic work where we wonder if there is to be any redemption for the narrator as she slips further and further into decline.

Most of the fragments are at the most two pages long and this broken collection of seemingly disparate parts is well suited to exploring a life on the edges, where the kaleidoscopic motes blur the lines between fantasy and reality. As the publisher’s notes say “to testify to what it is like to be alone and lost and indignant in a world that has stopped making sense.”

And suddenly I recall how my mom took me to see a psychologist once, I was twelve or thirteen and maybe ever weirder back then than I am now, I don’t really remember, even memory is just a play of colors and shapes behind eyelids shut in a desire for non-existence. He showed me some pictures, ink blots symmetrical along a vertical axis running through the center of the card. Did it remind me of anything? Was I supposed to let my imagination run wild? What swaddled dimensions, what unknowable universes existed back then, just like today, between my mental images and the words I was forced to use to express them?
Indeed: the infamous Rorschach test.
“A blot,” I told the psychologist when he showed me the first card, but I imagined horse shit on a forest path, which was very strange, given the path was so narrow, no horse could possibly squeeze its way down it.
“Okay, but what does the blot remind you of?”
“A blot.”
“And this picture?”
“A blot. A blot. A blot.”
It reminded me of the noble profile of Old Shatterhand’s face, it reminded me of a human brain and a singed map of Prague, it reminded me of…But why in the world should I tell him that? Just like today, I stubbornly insisted on words quite different to those bursting inside me like bubbles on the water’s surface.
Melda’s lying on a foam mattress and drinking no euro-rotgut but the good Chilean wine he’d given me for my birthday. He drinks it all in one go, being an alcoholic. And me? A blot. Behind the closed eyelids of God knows who. Blots. (p52)

Zuzana Brabcová has taken the three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment, from Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’, set the tale in modern day Prague and blended these into an experimental “morass of the bizarre and the grotesque”. At times the protagonist Alžběta is referred to in the third person, others the first, omniscient overlaid with monologue, this approach forcing to reader to recoil, but then to embrace.

‘Aviaries’ was the winner of the Josef Škvorecký Award, a Czech language award in 2016 for the best prose of the year, unfortunately Zuzana Brabcová had died soon after completing this work. A social commentary on the political state in Prague and the ill treatment of socially disadvantaged people, this is a powerful and lingering book.

As Émile Zola says (again) in his Preface to ‘L’Assommoir’; “ I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feeling and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.”

Whist Zola has a simple linear narrative arc, a moral story of decline into squalor, Zuzana Brabcová starts us deeply immersed in the mire, the opening fragment at sunset;

December 20, 2011

It arrives around four, five o’clock in the afternoon, hangs around until about seven, and then at night it reigns. It’s been that way for years, I don’t recall it ever having been any different. A day devoted to staying in is the music of a melody nobody has ever played. And when I do have to go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way I love them. All that exists: just disrupts and mars, as if somebody had graffiti-tagged The Night Watch.
V
áclav Havel died the day before yesterday. In his sleep, in the morning. So its reign extends beyond the night.

The book starting the in the days after the first President of the Czech Republic’s death. Even the reference to Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ pervades the opening with darkness, will there be an escape from the gloom?

Brabcová draws on a number of Zola references;

and she looked along the outer boulevards, to the left and to the right, her eyes pausing at either end, filled with a nameless dread, as if, from now on, her life would be lived out within this space, bounded by a slaughterhouse and a hospital. (‘L’Assommoir’ p33)

No, I really can’t complain about where I live. I have a complete range of public facilities nearby: two hospitals, numerous pharmacies, a cemetery, even a crematorium. (‘Aviaries’)

A highlight of my recent reading journey and yet again a great publication from Twisted Spoon Press in Prague. Now I have read Zuzana Brabcová’s final novel I am eagerly awaiting more of her work to appear in English, ‘Rok Perel’ apparently the first Czech novel to deal with lesbian love, set in a psychiatric hospital it deals with an adult woman’s love for a young girl. Her first novel ‘Daleko od stromu’ was published in 1984 in Cologne and Zuzana Brabcová was the first recipient of the Jiří Orten Award in 1987, a prize established to raise the profile of authors whose works had been rejected by the regime. Her work ‘Stropy’ (‘Ceilings’) won the Magnesia Litera in 2013, the title referring to the thing which people hospitalised in psychiatric clinics see most often – a ceiling. All of these blurbs (taken from the Czech Lit website), look most appealing indeed, let’s hope some translators are on the case.

I think it is going to take something special for this book not to remain at the top of my highlights for 2019 and if you enjoy works that push the boundaries, books that examine the fringes, mysterious, grotesque and hallucinatory works then I suggest you order a copy of this post haste.

Copy courtesy of the publisher Twisted Spoon Press.

 

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.

Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

GoWentGone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Susan Bernofsky, took home the last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) in 2015, with “The End of Days”, the award merging with the Man Booker International Prize the following year, with the more well known prize pretty much taking on all of the eligibility criteria of the IFFP. “Go, Went, Gone” is the fifth time Bernofsky has translated Erpenbeck’s work (other titles are “The Old Child and Other Stories”, “The Book of Words”, “Visitation” and “The End of Days”), again resulting in a major prize longlisting.

Our protagonist, Richard, a University Professor, has retired, his wife is deceased, he has no children, how will he spend his newfound spare time?

The novel opens with two epigraphs, the first from Wolfgang Pauli;

God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.

Hinting that we need to look at what lies beneath. The book starting with various references to items below the surface, firstly a dead man at the bottom of a lake;

The lake is deep, eighteen meters. It’s lovely near the top, but in truth an abyss. All the local residents, including him, now gaze with a certain hesitation at the reeds, at the lake’s mirrorlike surface on windless days. He can see the lake when he sits at his desk. The lake is as beautiful this summer as in any other, but this year there is more to it. As long as the body of the dead man hasn’t been recovered, the lake belongs to him. All summer long – and now it’s almost autumn – the lake has belonged to a dead man. (p10)

Next the story of the subterranean catacombs under the Berlin Alexanderplatz, where people shopped whilst they waited for an appointment at the Town Hall;

Even then, unbeknownst to him, these hollow spaces were there beneath him, only a few yards of earth separating them from his feet. (p12)

An interesting history;

…the rubble-filled vaults beneath Berlin’s Town Hall escaped detection even by the Nazis, who contented themselves with flooding the subway tunnels in the final days of the war. Probably to drown their own people who had fled underground, taking refuge from the Allies’ air raids. There you go again, cutting off your nose to spite your face. (p12)

As Richard visits the Alexanderplatz there is a hunger strike by desperate refugees, he doesn’t notice the protest, it is a metaphorical blind spot, the educated not seeing the plight of the desperate. Here the references to the underground start to flow thick and fast;

Under the earth there is only more earth. What comes after that, no one knows. (p24)

What makes a surface a surface? What separates a surface from what lies below it, what separates it from the air? (p31)

…the earth is more like a garbage heap containing all the ages of history, age after age there in the dark, and all the people of all these ages, their mouths stopped up with dirt, and endless copulation but no womb fertile, and progress is only when the creatures walking the earth know nothing of all these things. (pp20-21)

Meanwhile the narrative remains quite simple, Richard finally awakes from his slumber and befriends a group of African refugees, men who are living in Germany, men who are asking for the right to work but are denied such as their route into German was through Italy so it is in Italy where the “human rights” obligations lie.  A subtle change from the oblique references to the underground and the surfaces then happens, where the topic now becomes “borders”. The obvious reference being the former Berlin Wall, with Richard being a former resident of the East, but there are also numerous other references in relation to the refugee crisis.

At the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person, the transition has to be visible – a transition that, if you look closely enough, is nothing at all. (p39)

Early on this novel uses short meticulously crafted sentences, ones rich in meaning as we explore the surfaces, underground, and borders. The experience requires a measured reading. As the exploration of the uninhabitability of Europe for refugees comes to the fore, and the meshing of the West/East Berlin story with the balance of excesses (food, knowledge, reading, sheer volume of goods) against the bare essentials of those who are eternally wandering, the story becomes murky.

With references to the Iliad, Apollo, Hermes, and Johann Sebastian Bach, the story moves from one theme to another, and then the impersonal approach of our protagonist Richard, a person involved with helping the refugees, but at the same time divested, it all starts to lose its focus.

Clunky sentences, for example, “Just as initially, when the men were still living in the suburbs, he’d considered their cell phones a luxury (though admittedly a luxury of the most modest sort), he also couldn’t understand why each of the refugees required his own transit pass.”, that require re-reading suddenly make this book a bit of a chore.

Whilst exploring grand ideas and the current refugee crisis, this book does question your own fundamental beliefs;

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness. (p209)

The title a mish-mash of irregular verbs and highlighting language differences, however it does also have a more pertinent reference in the book;

…it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theater. Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead. (pp221-222)

Starting with a wonderful premise, themes that could balance nicely against the reality of the current refugee crisis, this book is ultimately disappointing, slipping late into cliché and preaching. It promised a lot but delivered little. A fine writer, but for mine not a book that should be in discussions for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

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.

 

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!!!