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

Jaeggy

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

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

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

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

Grammar – wtf is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!!!

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.