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

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

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

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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!

Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Five

93d08-weightA handful of titles remaining on my favourite books of 2016. Very early in the year I came across this work, one that for some strange reason didn’t make the Best Translated Book Award lists, a bleak, dark foggy tale from Marianne Fritz “The Weight of Things”. Here’s my review from February.

 

If there was a scene characteristic of my humble poetics, it would be a foggy atmosphere where a solitary man waked down a lonely road and smoke always got him thinking.

I evoked that characteristic for sequence evident in so many of my stories.

                                   Enrique Vila-Matas ‘The Illogic of Kassel’

A thematic staple in many a literature, the fog, and Marianne Fritz uses the same image in her only translated work, “The Weight of Things”;

Ever since stepping into Ward 66, Wilhelm’s brain cells seemed veiled in a thick waft of fog, so that he could make out his thoughts only vaguely, and he had to proceed slowly and carefully, feeling them out, to be able to tell one from another at all. He resolved to restrict his thoughts to a level appropriate to the circumstances, to concentrate his energies, like a chauffeur driving in the fog who has to focus his attention on the oncoming cars: on seeing them for what they are, on not drifting too near them, on recognizing trees in the roadside shadows, concrete dividers in the spectral darkness, on knowing the median isn’t just a harmless fringe, to grasping, above all, that what surrounds him is real space, not some sort of vacuum, as the fog would prefer him to think – to the extent that a fog prefers anything – and to understanding that this material world is more resilient than he, so that failing to respect it, approaching it with arrogant recklessness, incautious stubbornness, or dogmatic inflexibility, would be extremely dangerous.

Very much like Wilhelm, you need to approach this book slowly and carefully, feel it out, see it for what it is, be aware of the median…it’s not just a harmless fringe.

Marianne Fritz’s first novel, the winner of the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, has recently been translated and released as part of the “Dorothy Project”, a publishing project mainly by women that publishes two books simultaneously, two books that “draw upon different aesthetic traditions”, because their “interest in literature lies in its possibilities, its endless stylistic and formal variety.” And from the opening pages you know that this is gem discovered.

The opening seven pages condenses the period 1945- January 1963 and includes pregnancy, marriage, the post-war decline of humanity, and the Madonna. We have three main characters, Wilhelmine, Wilhelm (who are married) and Berta and we cut back and forth across the eighteen-year period;

In view of Wilhelmine’s inclination to demand fulfilment of every last verbal concession she’d wrung out of him, usually without warning, he might have done better to vow henceforth never to make his vows so hastily, and to leave himself more ways out.

Without a background in German the nuances in the character’s names, and the places names are somewhat lost, however the “Note on the Translation” at the start gave me a clue as to some of the secondary meanings, for example, Berta’s maiden name means fist (‘Faust’ which is also, of course, Goethe’s famous play), Wilhelm’s surname means scream or cry etc. And there are numerical references throughout too, a recurring “unlucky” 13, ward 66, Anniversaries and more, I am sure there are many hidden references to all of these numbers.

The title, “The Weight of Things” is the daily grind of being alive;

“When she’s asleep, you know, she’s not caught up in the world, so concerned with the surface of things. The stamping and molding hands of life, the rolling, pressing, and flattening fingers – the weight of things, life as such, it can’t hurt her so long as she’s asleep. It’s that simple, Sleep startles everything away. Everything and everyone.”

Our novel starts out as a simple domestic story and once the fog descends it loops around on time, with satire, post-World War Two recovery, complex character internalisation, and includes a startling revelation. As I do my best to avoid spoilers in my reviews you won’t know what the revelation is unless you read this work yourself, however it does mean I have to be brief with my comments on this book as the “spoiler” is key to a number of the time threads that run throughout this book.

The afterword by translator Adrian Nathan West, reveals the following about the complex world of Marianne Fritz and her work, this being the only work we will possibly see in English;

Indeed, her entire oeuvre works toward a vindication of the livers of the poor, mean and especially women, who were expelled from the dignified arenas of Austrian society in the first half of the twentieth century and crushed like roaches under the millstone of history.

There are many articles available about Marianne Fritz’s other works, the untranslatable “Whose Language You Don’t Understand”, a 3,392-page story set in 1914, not only the beginning of World War One but also a “period in which the traditional agrarian economy gave way to industrialisation, when those who had previously worked the land became a despised and neglected appendage to the modern capitalist state.” This was followed by a 7,000 page ten volume work reproduced directly from Fritz’s typescript, a work so complex the spacing, drawings, angles of the text making it impossible to typeset.

A wonderfully bleak, dark, foggy tale, set during a further period of human decline after the second world-war, with Biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ and the Madonna, this can be read as a straight forward tale, it can also be mulled over, steered through carefully, and is a work that demands a re-read from the moment you finish it. A worthy contender to make the Best Translated Book Award lists for 2016 and another wonderful addition to the world of Women in Translation.

Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Ten

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My tenth favourite book for the year will feature on plenty of “best of” and end of year lists. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and surely will appear on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award lists (it was released in the USA sometime after the UK release).

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” has been reviewed left, right and centre, so I possibly don’t add a lot to that landscape. For me the “rebellion” element with a character taking control over the last bastion of freedom (what she puts in her own body) was the domineering theme that made this novel stand out from the other contenders on the Man Booker International Prize list. As part of my Shadow Jury duties I am more than happy to reveal that I rated this novel on top, as there is no controversy revealing such, it did take out our Shadow Jury Award as well as the official award.

Here is my review from earlier in the year.

 

By no stretch of the imagination do I purport to have any knowledge of South Korean history or understanding of their current cultural situation.

Therefore a potted history taken from the preface of “Maninbo: Peace & War” by Ko Un may help to put some of the cultural themes to the fore:

In early 1960 the citizens began to protest, provoked by blatantly falsified election results. On 19 April 1960 thousands of university students and high school students marched on the Blue House, the presidential mansion, demanding new elections and calling for Syngman Rhee’s (a US installed leader in the 1940’s) resignation, the numbers growing to over 100,000. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing approximately 180 and wounding thousands. On 26 April, President Rhee stepped down from power and went into voluntary exile. This series of events is known as the April revolution.

South Korea adopted a parliamentary system which considerably weakened the power of the president and so, while Yun Bo-seon was elected president on 13 August 1960, real power was vested in the prime minister. Following months of political instability, on 19 May 1961 Lt General Park Chung-hee launched a cou d’état overthrowing the short lived second Republic of South Korea and replacing it with a military junta and later the autocratic third Republic of South Korea. Almost at once, he authorised the establishment 1961 of the Korean Central intelligence agency. This was the notorious office responsible for the repression of political and social descent throughout his time in power, and beyond. After Yun resigned in 1962, Lt General Park consolidated his power by becoming acting president. In 1963, he was elected president in his own right. In 1971, Park won another close election against his rival, Kim Dae-jung. Shortly after being sworn in, he declared a state of emergency, and in October 1972, Park dissolved the legislature and suspended the 1963 constitution. The so-called Yushin (‘revitalising’) Constitution was approved in heavily rigged plebiscite in November 1972.

Meanwhile, South Korea had begun the process of industrialisation and urbanisation that were to catapult it to its current position in the world. This was done at the expense of many basic human rights, with low wages, absence of trade unions, arbitrary arrests and random killings. Finally, as more and more people taking to the streets to do demand a return to democracy and a liberalisation of society, Park seemed to be preparing a violent crackdown when he was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, The head of the Korean Central intelligence agency, on 26 October 1979.

For a while, it seemed that the dreamed-of restoration of democracy might happen, but on 18 May 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup while provoking an uprising in the south-western city of Gwangju which left hundreds dead. All the leading dissidents were thrown into prison and a new dictatorship began.

After continuing resistance and sacrifice on the part of many dissidents, climaxing in huge demonstrations in June 1987 which forced the dictatorial regime to accept the Democratic Constitution, Korea was finally able to elect a civilian president in 1992.

It is against this backdrop of dissent, rebellion and corruption that the themes of “The Vegetarian” become clearer.

Broken into three parts “The Vegetarian” opens with the first person narration by Yeong-hye’s husband, a plain man with no ambitions;

I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I could be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.

He is married to a plain unremarkable woman, our protagonist, Yeong-hye;

However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started to appear in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.

The basic plot of Han Kang’s novel is Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian (vegan in fact as she also avoids, dairy, eggs, wearing leather etc.) and the subsequent consequences. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, the middle section a third person story of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s relationship with her after her vegetarianism and the final section another third person account from the view of Heong-hye’s sister and husband of the artist featured in section two.

Let’s forget the linear plot as the sub-plot is the more interesting account here. This is a novel that explores institutionalisation, in many different forms, what it means to push against the norm, to what extent to we really have “freedom of choice”? The simple act of declaring her vegetarianism leads Yeong-hye to undergo ostracising by numerous peoples, not just her husband and her family, but governmental bodies, health professionals and more.

This is a novel that raises all the social norms, the familial norms, governmental norms, general rules of society, for example when is it okay to go semi-naked, when is it okay to choose what you eat, when is it okay to have a different appearance?

As the novel progresses the “kicking against the pricks” crosses into art, nature, sexual mores and begins to question our beliefs of what constitutes beauty, is it in the eye of the beholder? Is it something we have been programmed or influenced to believe?

The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect. It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hand wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn’t look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.

A novel that questions social norms and raises questions such as, when someone is different why do we see vulnerability? The inner sleeve tells us that Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshy prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.”

Why did you use to bare your breasts to the sunlight, like some kind of mutant animal that had evolved to be able to photosynthesize?

A wonderfully rich, multi layered work, that questions a raft of social issues on many levels. Written in a sparse, almost detached style, the translation is obviously reflective of a deeper South Korean cultural awareness and allows the reader to subtly become haunted by Yeong-hye’s journey from a meat eater to a natural being.

Surely a work that will feature on the upcoming Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award longlists, and one I expect to go far in both of these awards. A work of rebellion but without the ra-ra of some books, a haunting journey of what it means to resist.

The Rest Is Silence – Carla Guelfenbein (translated by Katherine Silver)

Truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things.
Last year I planned a full six week holiday/visit to Central America, taking in places such as Mexico and Guatemala and once my work situation changed and the bill came in, the passports were put back on mothballs and a local holiday to Kangaroo Island replaced my ambitious plans. Somehow that planning must have left a seed in my subconscious as I have been reading books from the region all year, twenty-one of the seventy-five posts I have made this year have been  from Central or south America, 28% shows a distinct leaning!!! I still have fifteen or twenty unread books on my “to be read” piles from the region so more will be forthcoming before the end of the year I am sure, there’s even a chance I’ll manage to fit one or two more in before the end of “Women In Translation Month” too.
Back to Chile for my latest read, a work nowhere near as experimental or as challenging as Diamela Eltit’s “Custody of the Eyes”  (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ), more your very readable, approachable style like the last couple of works I have read from Mexico. As with “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) which was told in ten different voices, or “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes) with five narrators, “The Rest Is Silence” is narrated in three difference voices.
The novel opens with the innocent child voice of Tommy, who has been excluded from the other children’s games and is hiding under a table at a Wedding, listening, and in fact recording, adult conversations. By doing so Tommy accidentally learns that his mother did not die from an aneurysm, but rather committed suicide:
If Mama killed herself, it’s because she didn’t love me. I hold my breath and count: Ten, nine, eight, seven…I’m sure I can go back, back to before I hid under this table…six, five…the elephant would say anything to impress her friends…four, three, two…My head is spinning and I feel a thousand stabs in my belly, as if a propeller were turning round and round inside my guts. I can’t stand it anymore. I make a dash for it. I slip and fall. I bang my knees and my hands.
I’ve come to the very end of the garden, where it plunges down into the sea. The light in the sky is white. My cousins are playing ball at the top of the hill, the highest point in the garden. I sit down on the grass. I hug my knees and bury my head in my lap. I stink. I don’t know exactly when my guts exploded. Now I’m really in trouble.
Sometimes I know what it feels like to be unhappy, to wait for night-time so I can hide under the sheets, close my eyes, and escape forever to Kájef’s barge. Is that how Mama felt?
We then immediately move to the female voice of Alma, Tommy’s step mother, slowly the history of this family comes into focus. Finally the voice of Juan, Tommy’s father and Alma’s husband, takes the stage, and the grief over his first wife’s, Solidad’s, death, his young child’s heart condition and his relationship with his current wife become the dominant themes.
This is a story of a fractured family, with one character obsessed by his child’s failing heart, another about “love” and her relationship with her mother, her husband and her own child and step child and the other character wondering why everybody is so uneasy and where is his mum?
The innocent, but honest, voice of the child Tommy not only acts as a nice counterbalance to the two adult voices, who do not communicate directly with each other, but it also raises the tension in the novel. With Tommy talking to his imaginary friend or the maid Yerfa, or reviewing his illicit tape recordings, you know that the crescendo is slowly building, an explosive conclusion is a foregone conclusion.
The day’s first light is blue. The gate is open, and the outside light is on. IT wasn’t a dream. Alma came home with another man. I want to edit out that whole scene, like she does with her movies. Erase it from my memory. But when something new and important gets into my head, there’s no way to get it out of there. No matter how hard I try to forget, there are little monsters who keep reminding me it’s still there. Not long ago, I explained it to Alma and she told me that the little monsters are called your conscience. I asked her if they ever go away and she said they don’t, but we learn to live and just pretend we don’t see them. I wanted to know why I can’t do that and Alma told me that maybe I was one of those very few people who, instead of closing their eyes, confront the monsters and fight against them until they defeat them. That’s why I’ve been thinking that if I can discover ten things about Mama, everything will become clear. Why ten? Because God gave us ten commandments to live by, because we have ten fingers, because ten billion kilometres are one light year, because Yerfa says I should count to ten before I say or do anything that I might later regret.
As each voice reveals a little more of their history, and their experiences, the layers are slowly peeled back and your pre-conceived ideas are put to the test, they are simply illusions, the truth of this family is more complex than you initially thought. As the unsaid, the “silences” referred to in the title, accumulate, you can see the rift that is slowly breaking this family apart.
There are a few events that happen, especially how Tommy discovers his roots, which, to me, are too coincidental, or contrived, however these don’t detract from the overall theme, tension, or plot of the work.
As the opening quote, I chose here, says…”truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things”…here we have three truths conveyed by three different voices, their individual truths different to the truths of the others. Confusing? It is not so when you read the book.
A pleasant read, not a challenging work by any means, and one that addresses the themes of family bonds, love, generational influence, addressing the truth and grief. Another fine addition to Women In Translation Month, one for people who are yet to dabble in such books to possibly try as a starter.

By the way Kangaroo Island is stunning, if you want remote, pristine, forests, walks along beaches, then this is a place to visit. It wasn’t my dream Central American trip, that can wait, I’ve been there through my reading choices for months now. 

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