A Decadent Woman – Georges De Peyrebrune (tr. Brian Stableford)

Mathilde-Marie-Georgina-Élisabeth de Peyrebrune, a decadent name if I’ve ever seen one, wrote under the pseudonym of Georges de Peyrebrune and according to ‘A Library of the World’s Best Literature – Ancient and Modern, Volume XLIII’ was “one of the most popular women novelists in France”.

Her novella ‘Une Décadente’ (translated here as ‘A Decadent Woman’) first appeared, in two parts, in the ‘Revue Bleue’ 20 March and 27 March 1886.

The novella tells the story of Hélione d’Orval, possibly suffering from tuberculosis, and primarily her interactions with her immediate family, sister Marguerite and brother in law Marcus, who is a doctor.

As the introduction advises:

The early 1880s was the hey day of the Parisian “Amazons,” women who took satirical advantage of an old city statute that permitted them to apply to the Prefecture of Police for a permit to wear male attire in public. The political fashion statement had been made before, but the possibility of making it “official” when it was challenged was an attractive floupetterie of which several determined self-publicists took advantage. The fencing-schools of the city, running low on their traditional customers, had recently opened their doors wide to female clients, who flocked there in much the same spirit, compounding the scandal in the eyes of the popular press, which swiftly created a mythology of female duelists that was enthusiastically transplanted into fiction by writers proud to belong to the largely fictitious “decadent school,” including Catulle Mendès.

Our novella opens with a description of protagonist Hélione’s portrait, full of pleats of silk and pearls, however later we learn of her slip into decadence, her wearing of male clothes, fencing, smoking and generally lazing about awaiting death;

“…Oh, certainly we’re decadent – but if we begin to take pleasure in it proudly, we’ll be doomed. How many sick people one could save if we could leave them ignorant of their disease! Fortunately Messieurs the Decadents are almost all poets – which is to say, not dangerous from the viewpoint of the propagation of their theory, for, as soon as they express it in verse, no one hears them any longer.”

There is the juxtaposition of the eloquent portrait against Hélione’s descent into decadence, is it an illness, is her rejection of the social norms a mental degeneration? There’s a tinge of satire here, the protagonist who has rejected society vs the expectations of her accepting amour, becoming a mother and therefore being cured of her “illness”.

“He’s not effeminate, spoiled, pomaded, like the stupid young men of your so-called artistic cirlces; he doesn’t wear a necklace or bracelets under his garments, doesn’t make himself up like a girl, doesn’t intoxicate himself with morphine or hashish, and doesn’t walk lazily with his eyes half-closed, swinging his hips. He’s a man. But it’s evident that that type of virile, strong, powerful beauty, full of health and life, can’t please a young woman like you, who preaches the reversal of sex roles, dresses in masculine fashion, binds her delicate forms in vests and waistcoats, salutes with the neck, shakes hands brutally, fences with a sword, hunts, smokes cigarettes . . . that’s evident, that’s evident! You no longer need a master today, a leader or a support, you clever women, bold, artistic and decadent to excess. You no longer need a defender, you who kill with revolver in hand those who get in your way or wound you. You no longer need amour, that slavery of the true woman, nor children, that meek embarrassment of your arms, henceforth occupied in a virile manner…”

The novella is primarily conversationally based, the characters bantering about her health, her decadence and her potential cure.

“Since we’re born to die, isn’t it in the very spirit of the work of nature to do everything with a view to hastening that end, which is its goal?”
“It’s nihilism that you’re practicing in that?”
“Exactly; it’s the philosophical theory of nations in decadence. We’re a finished people, so let’s hasten to disappear and make way for the races to come!…”

This work’s language is florid, with rambling philosophical debates of the will or reasons to live, layer upon layer of extravagant arguments, as though they are the blooming silk pleats in Hélione’s portrait. To exaggerate the satire, Hélione is sent to a country retreat to possibly cure her decadent “illness”, a place populated with simple folk, an environment where nature giving life may transform Hélione and give her back the will to live, a regression to simpler times, away from the uncertainty of the turn of the century, where science had taken over religion, where the putrid atmosphere hangs over Paris, where the new century held too many uncertainties.

Only it was becoming extremely difficult to reflect and sharpen one’s thought, to excite subtle reasoning in one’s mind, in the absorbing environment, much more sensational and subjective than she had believed it to be previously. Something very material, very alive, but very pleasant, invaded you, which seemed to rise from the warm earth, from the germination of plants, from the electricity spread by all the beings scattered in great active nature; something obscure, but powerful, inexpressible but perfectly sensed and understood, as if the beings and things, saps, breaths and perfumes, were pushing you in the direction of their own activity, their movement and their life, toward a goal identical to theirs, fatal, inexorable and definite. It was like an enlacement in the vibrant chain of existence common to all organic beings, a recovery of possession by Mother Nature, a remembrance of primitive needs stifled by purely cerebral fictitious desires issued from the unhealthy exasperation of the nerves. It was like the diminution of a fever under the mollified circulation of refreshed blood, a penetrating health that brought into play all the regenerated physical forces.

A nice addition to the decadent works of the late 1800’s and having the satirical, tongue in cheek approach of a decadent woman, being part of the feminist movement and being considered unwell is a very interesting approach.

The book also contains three short stories. ‘The Fays’, which appeared as a supplement to the short novel ‘Giselle’ in 1891, a gothic fairy story of a King and Queen, “when she was taken to him, scarcely nubile, he found her to be not to his liking, and neglected her shortly thereafter.” She gives birth to a daughter and we have a feminist climax to the tale. ‘The Red Bird’, which appeared in L’Écho de Paris in the 19 September issue of 1889, a very short story of a heart being a red bird enclosed in the rib cage  and ‘Salome’ which also appeared in L’Écho de Paris but in the 27 December issue in 1889, another very short story about a cremation of an artist’s studio model.

Another addition to the Women In Translation catalogue, de Peyrebrune’s works now making their way into English, being translated by Brian Stableford, a regular translator for Snuggly Books, who specialize in decadent literature. Although de Peyrebrune was one of the “most popular women novelists in France” she, like many artists, unfortunately died in poverty and oblivion in Paris in 1917.

A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ní Ghríofa

“THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.” Yells Doireann Ní Ghríofa in the opening line of her prose debut ‘A Ghost in the Throat’. I will not be ignored, I will not be erased, this will not sit in the shadows of texts written by men…The book closes with the same line, delivered with less force “This is a female text.” More on that later. Here is a blend of auto-fiction, research, memoir, translation and the story of poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is a female text.

‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, translated by Doireann Ní Ghríofa as ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’, (and which appears in both Gaelic and English at the end of the book) is an Irish lament composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (referred to by our author as ‘Nelly’). It has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, in the main, composed the keen about the death of her husband Art on 4 May 1773. And despite the claim of being the greatest poem written during the 1700’s, little is known of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and our author sets out to right this wrong.

However, this is no standard biography, award winning poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading us through her journey of discovery, as well as her own life of motherhood, domesticity, the endless chores that fill her days, donating breast milk…

My months fill themselves with milk and laundry and dishes, with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, with split grocery bags, dented tins, birthday parties, hangovers, and bills. I coax many small joys from my world: clean sheets snapping on the line, laughing myself breathless in the arms of my husband, a garden slide bought for a song from the classifieds, a picnic on the beach, three small heads of hair washed to a shine, shopping list after completed shopping list – tick, tick, tick – all my miniscule victories.

But to focus on the chores, with an occasional slip into Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem and life, in no way gives justice to this complex, multi layered revelation of a book. The poetry, and the possible life that Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill lived, leaks into our writer’s daily life. In the 1700’s the literature of women was not written down so the poem survived in oral form and was eventually transcribed in the 1800’s, by another woman, Nóra Ní Shíndile, our writer having to explore other female threads, for example letters, to somehow decipher the life of her subject.

I have come across a line of argument in my reading, which posits that, due to the inherent fallibility of memory and the imperfect human vessels that held it, the Caoineadh cannot be considered a work of single authorship. Rather, the theory goes, it must be considered collage, or, perhaps, a folksy reworking of older keens. This, to me – in the brazen audacity of one positioned far from the tall walls of the university – feels like a male assertion pressed upon a female text. After all, the etymology of the word ‘text’ lies in the Latin verb ‘texere’: to weave, to fuse, to braid. The Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

The theme of being “carried in female bodies”, obviously, comes through with our author detailing her pregnancies:

In choosing to carry a pregnancy, a woman gives of her body with a selflessness so ordinary that it goes unnoticed, even by herself. Her body becomes bound to altruism as instinctively as to hunger. If she cannot consume sufficient calcium, for example, that mineral will rise up from deep within her bones and donate itself to her infant on her behalf, leaving her own system in deficiency. Sometimes a female body serves another by effecting a theft upon itself.

As Doireann Ní Ghríofa researches her poet, she slowly reveals her life through others, letters of others, she is performing a delicate dissection, this is shadowed by her own experiences of first year medical training at University. Whilst delving into another’s life our writer is revealing more of herself, layer by layer. This is a beautifully constructed revelation of both a writer and her subject, whilst concurrently explaining the erasure of women. Whilst on a journey to the area where Nelly’s twin sister Mary lived, Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to find the house, the rooms, to reconstruct, even in her own mind, the lives of these women:

He knows the Baldwins’ old place, he says, leading me to the wet meadow where Mary’s rooms once stood. ‘See?’ he says. ‘Nothing.’ He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany: the parasols, portraits, and books, the blue vases and embroidered blankets, the drapes and sideboards, the letters, the combs, and the coats, the spoons and looking-gasses and scrubbing cloths, the coal buckets and diaries and piss-pots. Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.

This text reflects Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s allegory of being woven, fused, braided, the complex layering here is only revealed when you flick backwards and re-read passages, each section representing another thread that up close looks like nothing more than a single thread but once you stand back the full complexity of a stunningly woven tapestry is revealed.

How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?

There are even reasons for the addition of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, previous mediocre attempts, male translations, and our author is very modest when it comes to her work, not believing she has the talent to do the keen justice. Alone this closing of the book makes it a worthwhile addition, another “Women in Translation” addition. And when you reach the final words “This is a female text” you will be drawn back to those same opening words, written in a different tone. It is as though you’ve shared private moments with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and now the tale is complete, she is going to write a book about it.

An absolute revelation of a work, moving, powerful in its admissions, honest, brave and unique in style and substance. A book that offers up many interpretations, I’ve seen one where the rooms are presented as the theme, these threads, so many you could follow. A poet who has created a stunning prose debut, one that will surely take home more awards (it was recently crowned with the An Post Irish Book of the Year Award for 2020), be glowingly reviewed again and again as the US publication draws near, and be lauded by readers and writers the world over. A book so unique that I feel ill equipped to write about its power and beauty. Interestingly the small independent publisher “Tramp Press” is now out of stock, great to see titles by small presses, who champion the cause of this style of book, having to go to reprints.

Hellfire – Leesa Gazi (tr. Shabnam Nadiya)

The suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is Lovely’s birthday and she is heading to the markets, it is the first time she has been allowed to go outside the house unaccompanied, Lovely is forty years old today.

So opens the wonderful ‘Hellfire’ by Lessa Gazi, stunningly translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya. Forty years pretty much confined to her home, outings always with her elder sister Beauty or her mother Farida Khanam.

The holy prophet received his revelations from the Creator at forty. Which meant that even in the eyes of Allah ‘forty’ held some special meaning. Something special happened at forty, something special was going to happen today.

The scene is set in the first few pages that “something special” is going to happen today. ‘Hellfire’ is a novel that explores a single day in the life of a single family in Bangladesh, the rituals, the food, and of course the fact that Farida Khanam, and her passive husband Mukhles shaheb, keep their two daughters under tight lock and key.

Their lives had changed drastically after they were caught sneaking to the rooftop when they were fourteen. That was when the Monipuripara house was built. Until that house went up, the two sisters spent their days in harsh imprisonment. If husband and wife went out together, they locked the girls in with the older maidservant. But neither of the parents really felt comfortable with that. Sometimes they would get halfway to their destination and come back. Sometimes they would go but spend the whole time feeling uneasy. Farida Khanam staked everything she had on building the Monipuripara house, and, even before it was complete, she moved them in.

As the story unfolds, of Lovely’s day in Dhaka, we learn more about the forced “imprisonment” and the “man inside her head”, whose voices guide her on her journey.

(‘Apumoni, listen carefully to what I say. Do you want to go home now?’)
‘No.’
(‘Even if you leave right now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be out of danger. You’ll reach home by two, for sure, but it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to provide a suitable explanation about what you’ve been up to all this time. You didn’t even get much shopping done. But if you’re late getting back, then you’re done for – doomed. So what I say is, you’re in trouble anyway, whether you’re one hour late or three hours. What’s the point of worrying so much? You’ve come out by yourself this one time in your life. Just take in some air, chill, chat with people, then go home. There’s no harm if you don’t go back at all.’)

This is a novel revealing and depicting the women of the household, they are the primary players, with the men, bit players, sickly, resigned, or impassive, excluding the man inside Lovely’s head. Lovely’s older sister Beauty, and her motivations, her desire to keep Lovely underneath her in the pecking order, or her bitter relationship with her mother and father is also explored, through the rituals of being locked up not knowing when they’ll be allowed out of their rooms.

‘How long does she keep you locked up?’
‘It depends. Sometimes it’s just two or three hours, but sometimes it’s like two or three days. Amma opens the door and brings in food, she stays and chats, asks what we want for lunch or dinner. Sometimes she sits and watches television with us, then she locks the door and leaves. At some point, we figure out that our doors are no longer locked, that we can come out of our rooms and everything is fine. We’ve grown used to it. Today when I get home, she’ll probably lock us up for a month. When Amma locks us, she locks both of us up. It’s good though; we don’t have to do any household chores during those times. We don’t have to do the ironing. We just eat, chill out and watch TV. If anyone comes to visit our home when we’re locked up, Amma unlocks our doors. We go out normally, and then go back to our rooms when the guests leave. We don’t get many visitors anyway. And anyway, both of us do a lot of skin and hair care during those times. We rub eggs and henna in our hair. And we rub turmeric paste on our arms and legs. It brightens our complexion. Amma has the maid get everything ready for us. Generally, I’m not that into beauty care. I don’t enjoy it, and I’m lazy. But when I’m locked up, I do it.’

Lovely eventually goes home, and then the day begins again, this time from the mother Farida Khanam’s (also referred to as Amma) perspective. It is from then that the backstory unfolds. We learn of Farida Khanam’s marriage, her fears, relationships and reasoning behind locking her daughters away. Early in the novel she comes across as simply a domineering character who snaps at the hired help, always complaining about cleanliness, timeliness or cooking, but as her backstory unfolds, a sprinkling of compassion and understanding comes into play. We also learn of why she gave permission for Lovely to go out without a chaperone, and numerous other family issues that are, of course, kept behind closed doors.

When Farida had left the bustling home of her parents in the village to build her own family and household with her husband, she wasn’t sad at all. She hadn’t been one of those girls who were mad about weddings; neither was she the kind who played with dolls from the age of ten, as proxies for their own children and households. But her tie to what was hers, her blind devotion to what belonged to her, had always superseded everything else. My house, my siblings, my parents – this concept of mine was dangerously alive in her. What could be more ‘mine’ than her own husband and her own household? The day she first set foot in her husband’s house, ‘my husband’ and ‘my household’ easily became closer to her than ‘my father’s home’ or ‘my brothers and sisters’. Everything else could be cast aside when compared to husband and home.

A single day in the life of a dysfunctional family, where the characters of Lovely, Beauty and Farida Khanam are revealed in all their ugliness and splendor. A very enjoyable read from a country I haven’t visited often enough in my reading journeys. Translator Shabnam Nadiya has translated Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel ‘The Mercenary’ for Bengal Lights Books 2016 and Seagull Books 2018 and her work here, splattering the novel with real Bengali names for food, or terms of endearment, allows the reader to feel a part of the Dhaka family life.

Subtle references to the Holy Prophet and “something special” happening on a fortieth birthday are sown throughout, with symbols of impending doom, black crows, or potential escapes, a man wearing a “red-muffler”, all add up to a haunting but gripping read. Highly recommended.

Eight novels of the Mexican Revolution

The impact of Mexico’s revolution (1910-20), the last of the great peasant revolts and the first major revolution of the twentieth century was felt on much of the literary production of the country throughout the first two-thirds of the last century.

              –  ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns

The Mexican Revolution, a field rich with characters, narrative, metaphors, and stories. Not only a political turning point but a pivot in Mexican literature’s history. Whilst there are numerous titles using the Revolution as a setting or indirectly referring to the fallout and subsequent events, I have chosen eight books, written by Mexican writers, that have been translated into English and although some may be obscure, they are available as I have only recently filled my shelves with a number of these titles.

The numbering here is not a ranking, I’m simply presenting eight fiction titles you could read to understand the Mexican Revolution and its impact on the political and literary scene of Mexico.

  1. The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)

Even the cover gives this one away “A Novel of the Mexican Revolution”. Mariano Azuela himself served as a medical officer for Pancho Villa’s Northern Division where his experiences led to this work. Set firmly in the Revolution this short novel primarily covers the fates of two protagonists, Demetrio Macías, the leader of a band of disaffected peasants that become a feared revolutionary fighting force, and Luis Cervantes, a city aristocrat, or curro, whose disgust with the injustice of his country’s society has led him to embrace the growing Mexican revolution. Cervantes, a well-read medical student, attempts to give the illiterate Macías an education in political idealism, and for a time they appear to share a vision of a new and better Mexico.

Cervantes being Azuela’s alter ego this book has been available in English translation since the 1920’s and is widely available. The Penguin Classics edition including an “Introduction” by Carlos Fuentes.

2.The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)

In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.

Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.

3.The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton)

A novel that reflects on this central event in Mexico’s history by presenting the eighteen odd months prior to the revolution, we are on the edge of the storm. As Augustín Yañez explains in a short note at the start of the book:

The Spanish title of this book, Al Filo del Agua, is a farmer’s phrase for the beginning of the rainy season and is often used figuratively to mean the imminence or beginning of an event.

Those who wish to do so may call the book In a Village of the Archdiocese, The Old Order, or something of the sort. Its pages tell no preconceived story; it deals with lives – “marbles,” one of the characters calls them – which roll round, which are allowed to roll round in a narrow stretch of time and space, in a village, any village, of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara.

Here is a novel of transition, where the revolution only occurs very very late in the piece, not only a revolution of the peasants but a revolution against the church, and the ingrained way of life.

4. Cartucho – Nellie Campobello (tr. Doris Meyer)

Born in April 1900, Nellie Campobello is possibly the lone female voice of the Revolution. Living in the North and experiencing the Revolution first-hand, her book ‘Cartucho’ is a collection of fifty-six short vignettes, characters studies of the players in the Revolution. Broken into three sections, “Men of the North”, “The Executed”, and “Under Fire” these images are childlike in their innocence (Nellie Campobello was a child observing the Revolution). As our Translator’s Note points out:

Cactucho, first published in 1931, is a vivid evocation of war seen through a young girl’s eyes. Often called a novel, it is in face a blend of autobiography, history, and poetry. In fifty-six rapid sketches that have the quality of cinematic vision – “children’s lives, if no one emprisons them, are an uncut film”, wrote Campobello – Cartucho is both a tribute to the common soldier and a denunciation of war. The language of the child narrator is direct, unadorned, and authentically Mexican. But Campobello has said elsewhere that what seems so naïve was in fact a deliberate technique or “discipline.” Choosing a child’s voice and viewpoint, born of her own experience and knowledge, allowed her “to use its apparent unconsciousness to convey what I knew had to be said sincerely and directly.” The result is so convincing that many readers have overlooked the artistry that llies behind it.

5. Recollections of Things to Come – Elena Garro (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

Elena Garro’s (1920-1998) debut novel, ‘Recollections of Things to Come’, depicts life in a small Mexican village, Ixtepec, during the Cristero rebellion. The Cristero rebellion (1926-1929) was a widespread struggle in central and western Mexico in response to the imposition of secularist and anticlerical articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico. These were perceived by opponents as anti-Catholic measures aimed at imposing state atheism. Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles sought to eliminate the power of the Catholic Church and all organizations which were affiliated with it and to suppress popular religious celebrations in local communities.

Elena Garro’s novel uses a unique style, the village is the omniscient narrator, the players floating in and out of the action, the village reflecting on the history of Ixepec. As the ‘Itroduction” advises, This “is a book of episodes, one that leaves with the reader a series of vivid impressions. The colors are bright, the smells are pungent, the many characters clearly drawn in a few bold strokes.” The village survives, humans are fleeting. This is obvious from the opening paragraph:

Here I sit on what looks like a stone. Only my memory knows what it holds. I see it and I remember, and as water flows into water, so I, melancholically, come to find myself in its image, covered with dust, surrounded by grass, self-contained and condemned to memory and its variegated mirror. I see it, I see myself, and I am transfigured into a multitude of colors and times. I am and I was in many eyes. I am only memory and the memory that one has of me.

6. Here’s To You, Jesusa – Elena Poniatowska (tr. Deanna Heikkinen)

Another female writer, along with Nellie Campobello and Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska born in 1932 and winner of the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 2013, specialises in the disenfranchised, women and the poor. Her novel, Here’s To You, Jesua, opens with an Introduction, Jesua is eighty-seven and close to the end of her days:

Over there where Mexico City starts getting smaller, where the streets get lost and are deserted, that’s where Jesua lives. It’s so warm there’s no ice left in the freezers, just water, and the Victoria and Superior beers just float around. The women’s hair sticks against the nape of their necks, beaten down by sweat. Sweat dampens the air, clothes, armpits, foreheads. The heat bizzes, like the flies. The air in those parts is greasy, dirty; the people live in the very frying pans where they cook garnachas, those thick, filled tortillas covered in chile sauce, and potato or pumpkin-flower quesadillas, the daily bread that the women heap on tables with uneven legs along the street. The dust is the only dry thing, that and a few gourds.

As the cover blurb explains;

Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, Jesua finds herself at the Revolution’s end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa’s long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.

Another work that reflects on the impact of the Revolution on women and those on the fringes.

7. Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

From a narrative point of view, Susan Sontag sums up this novel perfectly in her ‘Afterword’:

The novel’s premise – a dead mother sending her son out into the world, a son’s quest for his father [Pedro Páramo] – mutates into a multi voiced sojourn in hell. The narrative takes place in two worlds: the Comala of the present, to which Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences, is journeying; and the Comala of the past, the village of his mother’s memories and of Pedro Páramo’s youth. The narrative switches back and forth between first person and third person, present and past. (The great stories are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past.) the Comala of the past is a village of the living. The Comala of the present is inhabited only by the dead, and the encounters that Juan Preciado will have when he reaches Comala are with ghosts. Páramo means in Spanish barren plain, wasteland. Not only is the father he seeks dead, but so is everyone else in the village. Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence.

And this is a haunting tale of essences mingling, pieces of human existence slowly dissolving and becoming scarce. Although in some circles this is considered a canonical work, it is not for the narrative style that I visited this novel, it was for its references to the Revolution and to understand the development of Mexican literary production in the 40/50 years after the revolution. It takes quite some time before the historical placement of this work is revealed.

8. Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred MacAdam)

Two works by Fuentes featuring on this list, ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ as opposed to ‘The Old Gringo” is less specifically focused on the Revolution covering the full life of Artemio Cuz.

The novel opens with Artemio Cruz on his death bed. The work is constructed through flashbacks and the present-day musing of his relationships with his family at his bedside, or the church. It is not long into the novel before we discover Artemio is a corrupt and vile man, (similar to Pedro Páramo, “pure bile”). His life is full of manipulations, for example landowners so he can seduce the daughter.

Mixing first, second and third person, it is at times a confusing work. Artemio reflecting, in the second person:

You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, their will, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.

Late in the Revolution, May 1919, Artemio manipulates a landowner:

“It’s important to know how to make distinctions,” murmured the old man as he wiped his lips with his napkin. “For example, business is one thing, and religion is something completely different.”

“See him there so nice and pious, taking Communion every day with his little girl? Well, that same mane stole everything he has from priests, back when Juárez auctioned off Church property and anybody with a little cash could buy huge tracts of land…”

This later period of the Revolution allows Fuentes to present the outcomes, the land grabbing and the change in ownership, power.

9. The Labyrinth of Solitude – Octavio Paz (various translators)

How could any list referring to Mexican literature not include Octavio Paz’s masterwork? I’ve included this as title nine on a list of top eight as it is non-fiction but it is an important key work when looking at Mexican history.

Not a book specifically about the Mexican Revolution but a monumental work, that addresses Mexican identity, culture and character, obviously touching upon the events of 1910-20 due to their significant contribution to  Paz’s opinions. As he says himself

I need hardly warn readers that my opinions are a series of reflection, not a consistent theory. (P 381)

Consistently referred to as a canonical text when discussing Mexico, this needs to be included on the list simply because it will enlighten your views on Mexican society and culture.

There are many more examples that could feature on this list, Elena Poniatowska in her ‘Introduction’ to Nellie Campobello’s ‘Cartucho” says:

From Azuela (‘The Underdogs’) on, the novel of the Revolution takes off at a gallop: Martin Luis Guzmán produces La sombra del caudillo and El águila y la serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent), giving Mexico the best prose it had known to date. Guzmán is followed by Gregoria López y Feuntes, Rafael F. Muñoz, José Ruben Romero, José Vasconcelos, Fransisco L. Urquizo, José Mancisidor, Mauricio Magdelano, Agustin Yáñez, and José Revueltas.

Unfortunately, not a lot of these works have been translated or are very hard to acquire. Are there any novels you think I should have added?

Rosario Castellanos – Monologue of a Foreign Woman (tr. Maureen Ahern)

rosario-castellanos

Some Mexican poetry from the 1950’s, a period of literary production where the recently read and reviewed Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo” (1955) falls.

Rosario Castellanos wrote the novel ‘Balun Canán’ (1957), translated by Irene Nicholson as ‘The Nine Guardians’, another work credited as being “indirectly associated” with the Mexican Revolution. Whilst I await the (delayed) mail and my copy of Rosario Castellanos’ novel, I thought I would share a poem of hers taken from ‘A Rosario Castellanos Reader’, a collection of short fiction, poetry and essays published by the University of Texas Press.

Monologue of a Foreign Woman

I came from far away. I’ve forgotten my own country
and I no longer understand the language they
use there for trade or work.
I’ve reached the mineral muteness of a statue.
Sloth, scorn and something
I can’t distinguish have defended me
from this language, that heavy jewel-studded
velvet that people where I live
use to cover their rags.

This land, like that other one of my childhood,
still bears on her face
a slave’s brand,
burned in by fire, injustice, and murder.
As a girl I slept to the hoarse crooning
of a black dove: a conquered race.
I hid beneath the blankets
because a huge animal
crouched out there in the dark, hungry
but patient as a stone.
Compared to him, what’s an ocean, a catastrophe,
or the bolt of love
or joy that annihilates us?

I mean
that I had to grow up fast
(before terror devoured me),
go away, keep a firm hand
on things and run my life.

I was still very young
when I spit on places the mob held sacred.
In crowds I was like a dog
that offends with its mange and copulation,
its startling bark in the midst
of a ritual or major ceremony.

So you,
although serious, was not entirely fatal.
I recovered, healed, and learned to gauge
the pulse of success, prestige,
honor, wealth, with a clever hand.
I possessed what the mediocre envy, the victors
dispute, but only one carries off.
It was mine but it was like eating foam
or passing my hand across the back of the wind.

Supreme pride is supreme renunciation.
I refused to become
a dead star
that takes on borrowed light to come alive.
Without a name or memories
I spin in spectral nakedness
in a brief domestic orbit.

But I still simmer
in the turbid imagination of others.
My presence has brought
a salty gust of adventure
to even this sleepy inland city.

When men look at me they remember that fate
is the great hurricane that splits branches,
uproots tall trees,
imposing merciless cosmic law
— above and beyond the meanness of humankind —
throughout its empire.

The women pick up my scent from afar, dreaming,
like draft animals when they smell
the brutal bolt of the storm.
for the elders
I fulfill that passive role
of the generator of legends.

At midnight I open wide the windows so anyone
keeping watch at night, meditating on death,
suffering the pangs of guilt,
or even the adolescent
(a burning pillow under his brow)
can question darkness through my being.

Enough. I’ve kept quiet more than I’ve told.
High mountain sun has tanned my hand
and on my fourth finger, “that points to the heart,”
as they say here,
I wear a golden ring with a carved seal.

A ring used
to identify corpses.

 

“Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Source Book, edited by Diane E. Marting, says of Rosario Castellanos’ poetry:

The reconstruction of female experience in her long poem, “Lamentación de Dido” (Dido’s lament), dramatized a woman of antiquity, which the speaking voice of “Malinche” reversed the Mexican ethnic and gender stereotypes that cast this woman as a symbol of betrayal. If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her in “Monólongo de extranjera” (“Monologue of a Foreign Woman”).
Although many critics have attempted to explain Castallenos’s poetry through an obsession with death, it is only one element of a much wide concept that permeates all her writing: The exploration of the other, whether that other be woman, indigenous culture, language, silence or writing itself.

This is a wonderful example of the “exploration of the other”, she is a “foreign woman”, clearly alienated, a stranger who is not accepted. Although nostalgic for the land of her “childhood”, she has “forgotten” her “own country”.

Interestingly the “Reading Rosario Castellanos” book also says (I am assuming they are the same writer as the second paragraph is also repeated verbatim – I’ve not a credit for the Biographical Source book):

If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her. “I’ve forgotten my own country/and I no longer understand the language they use there / … that heavy jewel-studded velvet that people where I live use to cover their rags” declares the female speaker in “Monologue of a Foreign Woman.” It was one of Castellanos’ favorite poems, she told Margarita García Flores: “I wasn’t aware of it at the time that I wrote it. I thought I was telling the story of another woman but when I finished I realized that I was talking about myself, that it was my own story that once again I had transformed and used in that oblique form of reference that creates distance between the object and expression…that is perhaps aesthetic distance” (“La lucidez como forma de vida,”). There transformations became twelve volumes of poems.

Rosario Castellanos’ entry in “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopedia” explains:

The large-scale sociopolitical transformations that took place in Mexico after the Revolution played a decisive role in Castellanos’ intellectual formation. With President Lázaro Cárdenas’ sweeping land reforms of 1941, the Castellanos family lost their vast landholdings and decided to migrate to Mexico City….

In 1950, she completed her master’s thesis in philosophy, entitled Sobre la cutura femenina (On Feminine Culture). Although the text has been criticized as being too pessimistic and lacking in strong scientific base, the study is important in that it clearly signals the beginning of Castellanos’ pointed examination and questioning of the role of women in a male-dominated cultural tradition.

The poem I’ve presented today, touching on these themes. And I chose this poem, because there’s the dogs again this time it “offends with its mange and copulation”.

As I work through another longer novel I may present another Rosario Castellanos poem, stay tuned.

A fascinating writer, who died tragically before reaching age fifty, she was electrocuted in her home in Tel Aviv, where she was the Mexican Ambassador to Israel, when she switched on a lamp after leaving the shower. Her novels, stories, poems and plays exploring a raft of feminist, indigenous and Mexican themes, she is a writer I will explore in a lot more detail as I continue my Mexican journey.

If you would like to read more about Rosario Castellanos there’s an article at ‘The Paris Review” that is worth exploring “Feminize Your Canon”.

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

Barefoot Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy supplied to me courtesy of the publisher.

Aviaries – Zuzana Brabcová (tr. Tereza Novická)

aviaries

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

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

Underneath the mattress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2011

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

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

Brabcová draws on a number of Zola references;

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

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

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

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

Copy courtesy of the publisher Twisted Spoon Press.

 

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

Jaeggy

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

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

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

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

Grammar – wtf is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GoWentGone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting history;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

Flights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time;

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

Always the journey itself hovering, shimmering in the background;

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

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

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

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

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

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