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


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


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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Ten Women – Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler)

Throughout my literary journey, which has lasted publicly for five years here on my blog, I have explored a number of literary styles. And my journey for the last two months has been solely based on literature originally published in Spanish and from Central or South America. I’m still in the region, this time returning to the written word from Chile, and Marcela Serrano’s “Ten Women”.
In a nutshell this book is made up of monologues of nine women who have been brought to a venue in a mini-bus specifically to address the audience of the other women present. They are all patients of Natasha, their therapist has arranged the meeting for them to talk about their lives in an open forum.
If you are after a well-crafted novel that follows a plot, then straight off the bat here, you are not going to like this one iota. And although it is probably a decent criticism of this work, that there is no plot, it does not mean that it is unreadable, poorly crafted, or even unworthy of your reading pleasure. In fact this book is highly addictive, has many layers, is moving in so many ways, and addresses numerous political, social and environmental issues specific to Chile as well as being a strong feminist mouthpiece.
From the opening, the introduction of sorts, as the women gather, aged between nineteen and seventy-five, we know that this is going to become a raw expose;
Beneath the black vest or pink blouse, wasn’t each woman endowing herself with resolve, gathering courage for the day ahead?? Their appearances today are certainly honest, there’s no interference from jobs, offices, or formalities that might pigeonhole them; the way they have come today is the way they truly are.
A few of the voices to give you a feel for what is in store here…opening is Francisca, fortysomething, successful in real estate, less so in her life in general and even less so in her relationship with her mother. Or the assured voice of Simona, well read, who comes from a privileged background, who meditates, and based on Buddhist teachings, lives in the present moment. Or Mané;
My name is Mané and I’m just as you see me. I was always the prettiest. I’m five foot eight and a half, which is tall for this country, and I weigh a hundred and thirty pounds. Even today, in spite of my age, I still keep an eye on my weight, although I’m the only one to see my body. I turned seventy-five a couple of months ago. There was barely a celebration.
I used to be gorgeous. It’s a shame I have to say it in the past tense. No one says “I am gorgeous” and even less “I will be gorgeous.” Well, that’s all I’ve got: the past. Sunset Boulevard, a movie from the fifties, reminds me of my life. That must be why I find it so moving. Starring, Gloria Swanson, it’s based on the life of Norma Desmond, a great Hollywood silent-movie actress who starred in dozens of movies, a true diva who had the world at her feet. By the time she’d aged, she wanted to return to acting and seduction but everyone had abandoned her. All the directors and producers who once sang her praises turned their backs on her. She was no use to them anymore, but this was something she refused to accept. They didn’t even answer her phone calls. She was rotting, alone and abandoned. Like me.
The personal shame of ageing, such a moving and honest voice, brilliantly captured by a writer who herself could only have been in her late fifties (at most) when she wrote this. Each of the characters have such assured voices, even if their tales are, in many cases, horrific, the characters are happy in their own skin. Throughout the pervading feeling is that Natasha, as a therapist, must be extremely successful in her work.
Natasha said that only by telling her could I take control of this story. That’s what I am doing today. In order to recover, every survivor needs to be able to take charge of her memories. We need others for that. Today I’m burdening you as witnesses. The load is heavy.
I’m worn out.
We have the brutal story of a Palestinian, Layla, exiled in Chile and her return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, her subsequent memories, or Luisa from the country who only loved one man, a man who was taken away, at three-thirty in the morning, still in his pyjamas, a few months after the 11 September 1973 Military coup. Or the tale of a young teenage lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality, and a popular television presenter who cannot sleep without medication or face who she really is.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a gripping work, the honest, true voices of the women who are undergoing therapy, for numerous reasons, haunt you from the first page until the last. A realistic picture of life under the paternalistic rule of Pinochet, a view from so many angles. The presentation of nine monologues adds to the non-fiction meta-fiction style, even if the stories are in fact fiction, they appear almost interview like and therefore the realism of the situation rings true. The final “woman” character being Natasha, the therapist herself, her tale told by her lifelong assistant, and to me this section almost seems tacked on, a nice tidy way of rounding out the stories, how can we have the therapist calling all these women here without an explanation? Nine monologues, one third person story to round it out. A really flat way to end what would otherwise be a fine work.
There are also a few typos and the Americanisation of simple things (like Mané’s height and weight in the example above) is quite frustrating given Chile has been on the metric system since 1848 (in fact it is compulsory!). But these are just small idiosyncrasies that every 40 or fifty pages or so detract from the overall work.

All in all, this is another decent inclusion on the “Women In Translation Month” listings, another interesting work from Chile, and I still have a number of works from there on my “to be read” piles, don’t worry I will be back!!

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Umami – Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Three in a row of Mexican women’s writing, with today’s review being the recently released “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (some places have this slated for release next month, however I purchased my copy a few months ago and it has been with me since June!!) I came across the work ‘umami’ a few years ago when my eldest child came home from primary school and explained that there are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (discovered by the Japanese), the novel also gives a description;
“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”
But this is not a novel about food. The “umami” here is the name of one house in a collection of five, all named by the landlord Alfonso, an expert in flavour (or more precisely pre-Hispanic diets). These five homes are in an urban environment and from the opening page you know that you are in for a desolate tale:
The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminium travel case. Not anymore. It’s probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard, If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.
The future holds no picnics, it is bare, it is urban. But one of our voices, the young Ana wants to start a garden, she is breaking out of the desolation that has befallen these people and she is planning a future.
The book is broken into three sections each containing five chapters, five different voices, the chapters move backwards through the years. 2004 is the voice of a young girl, the older sister of Luz who drowned a number of years ago, 2003 the story of Marina, an unstable adult girl who suffers an eating disorder, 2002 the voice of Alfonso, the anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic diets, and husband of the recently deceased Noelia, 2001 the immature voice of Luz who drowns in that year and the year 2000 another young girl, Pina.
The five voices live in five different houses named after the five basic flavours,
Bitter House: Marina
Sour House: Pina and her dad, Beto.
Salty House: Linda Walker and Víctor Pérez.
Sweet House: The Pérez-Walker Academy of Music.
Umami House: Alfonso Semitiel…and The Girls.
With wonderfully rich characters and distinctive voices, the culture exploration is also prominent, for example the study of amaranth, the Aztec rituals and how the Spanish wiped out the main grain source, amaranth, creating the now held misbelief that corn was the primary source of grain in Mexico is raised.
Again, although it may appear so with eating disorders, professors of diets, houses names after flavours, this is not merely a novel about food. This is a book that works on many other levels, exploring loss, motherhood, maternal love, and innocence. As well as the allegory of tending a garden, the meticulous work and the slow involvement of others in the “community”, showing the voices who are coming to terms with loss and moving towards a brighter future.
Just like umami, reading this book became a craving, you need a satisfying fill of this group of ordinary humans all coming to terms with ordinariness, death, loneliness, admiration, self-awareness, innocence. With characters that are believable, and small revelations that are peppered throughout the five distinct voices all become similar in their needs. Whilst Marina with her eating disorder believes that she is isolated and alone, Ana looks up to her for her individuality, her determination and her unique fashion style. Whilst Alfonso is living in the past, and the memories of his life with the recently deceased Noelina, Marina lives in the now, the immediate, no past, no future.
Whilst personally I found the voice of Alfonso the most enjoyable to read, that may be because he is the only male voice in the novel, all five voices are distinct, uniquely different and address, from a range of angles, maternal love and loss.
A book that must have been challenging to translate, given the different tone, nuances, styles and ages of all the voices, and as per her wonderful work with Ivan Repila’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, Sophie Hughes has brought to life a seamless work in English. I am looking forward to reading her recently translated “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbun.
A sparkling work that I am sure would reveal even more secrets on a second reading, one that combines all the flavours of the palate, which rounds out nicely and leaves you with a feeling of loss, something “to remember, not to keep”.

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Natural Histories – Guadalupe Nettel (translated by J.T. Lichenstein)

I have been involved in Women In Translation Month since its inception three years ago and each year I plan ahead my potential reading titles for the month, this year electing to stay with the Spanish language translations and primarily from Central or South American nations. After Diamela Eltit’s difficult experimental work from Chile and the feminist short stories of Inés Arredondo from Mexico I thought a further stay in Mexico would be beneficial and over the course of this week I will look at the short stories from Guadalupe Nettel and a recent novel by Laia Jufresa, both Mexican writers receiving a lot of current press, before finally ending the week by heading back to Chile and the approachable novel “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano. All of these works a lot more “commercial” than the books I generally read and review here.
“Natural Histories” is a collection of five short stories, described on the back cover as unfolding “in fragile worlds, where animal behaviours parallel the ways in which human beings interact”. Or in other words each of the stories feature a protagonist and an animal theme, fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, fungi and snakes are the five themes that exist and interact alongside the narrative.
The collection opens with “The Marriage of the Red Fish” where the actions of a couple, expecting the birth of their first child, mirror the activity of the fighting fish they have recently been given and have moved into a large tank, the action drifts along like the fish themselves;
We first placed the fish on a small corner table in the living room where the afternoon sun fell. We thought they cheered up the room, which faced the patio behind our building, with the quick movements of their fins and tails. I don’t know how many hours I must have spent watching them. A month earlier I had requested maternity leave from the law office where I worked to prepare for the birth of my daughter. It wouldn’t be forever, and it wasn’t uncommon, but still it troubled me. I didn’t know what to do at home. The too-many empty hours filled me with questions about my future.
Meanwhile the couple’s behaviour starts to become territorial, they start antagonising each other;
I always kept an eye on them whenever I was home, as if with that look, severe and exact, an imminent confrontation could be averted. I of course felt solidarity with her. I could feel her fear and her anxiety at being cornered, feel her need to hide. Fish are perhaps the only domestic animals that don’t make noise. But they taught me that screams can be silent. Vincent adopted an ostensibly more neutral position, betrayed nonetheless by the humorous comments he dropped now and again: “What’s wrong with the female? Is she against reproduction?” or “Keep calm, brother, even if you’re getting impatient. Remember that laws today are made by and for women.”
Although the longest story in the collection, this is a simple story of family antagonism and breakdown, an ordinary tale that you know is not going to end well, if it is to follow the lives of fighting fish put into the same tank!!! A story that is unsettling, because as a reader you understand the fate of the narrator before the inevitable happens.
“War in the Trash Cans” is a tale of an unwelcomed niece living a façade of the suburban “American” style dream, set to the backdrop of invading cockroaches.
“Felina”, follows the more traditional domestic animal and the cycle of a cat’s pregnancy;
The ties between animals and human beings can be as complex as those that bind us people. There are some who maintain bonds of reluctant cordiality with their pets. They feed them, they take them for walks if need be, but rarely do they speak to them other than to scold or “educate” them. In contrast, there are others who make of their turtles their closest confidants. Every night they lean in towards their tanks and tell them about what happened to them at work, the confrontation they put off with their boss, their doubts, and their hopes for love. Among domestic animals dogs get particularly good press. It is even said that they are man’s best friend because of their loyalty and nobility, words that often signify nothing more than a tolerance for abuse and abandonment.
“Fungus”, as the title implies, is a story of parasites, bodily growths and love, “my fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.” there is attraction but also rejection, “eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship.”
The collection ends with “The Snake from Beijing”, where a married man, a famous playwright, who although French was adopted when he was two years old. After returning to China for a theatre production of one of his works, he returns home a changed man.  He secludes himself in a pagoda and buys a pet venomous snake.
This collection is very straight forward in the metaphoric and allegorical telling of the stories and very approachable and is written in a readable candid style, unlike some works I have recently read, there is no complex layer upon layer of deciphering to be done – for example, if a snake is shedding its skin, the human character is also being reborn. It was refreshing to read a short collection of stories that didn’t require an in-depth knowledge of the political landscape, so a decent work for readers wanting to dip their toes into the world of translated literature without becoming overawed.

Does it make me want to leap on the “to be read pile” and grab her latest novel “The Body Where I Was Born”? Not really, although I will probably get to it before the end of the month, a longlist candidate for this year’s “Best Translated Book Award” means it was on the pile for a number of reasons (not just Women In Translation Month).