If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives is a story of a child who spends her childhood in Vietnam, her early adulthood in America then makes a return visit to her homeland to confront aspects of her past she wishes to resolve.

In Part One she is escorted by her solider to a secretive military camp where her mother has spent the last four years, she is seven years old and has been separated from her mother for four years.

The mother is distant, busy, under suspicion, she is an energy consultant, the girl tries to please her, get her attention. She struggles to connect with her in the way her heart yearns, becoming overly attentive to trying to please her in a way that children who aren’t able to  take having parents there for them for granted might react.

Whenever she has to travel anywhere she is accompanied by this same solider. She clings to him even though he discourages it. She befriends a motherless little girl she finds playing a game stacking bricks, their time together establishes some of the few memories of childhood they will retain, both haunted by the last time they see each other.

There is a strange, unsafe vibe around the little girl’s father. She develops a desire to hurt something, after killing a fish with her bare hands, her angst morphs into thoughtless cruelty towards the little girl. Suddenly her time there is over, she is again escorted, this time across the China border onto a plane to America.

Years later, I understood that Mother had made sure nobody saw me enter the camp and nobody saw me leave; that the erasure of my records in Vietnam would be complete when I boarded the plane…I told myself that once I got to the US, I would turn around, take a different plane back to Vietnam, go get the little girl so we could leave the camp together for good.  We’d talked about escaping together so many times that being forced to go without her was unthinkable.

In Part Two the girl has been sent to America, her mother having promised (unfulfilled) to follow her there, drifting from the homes of relatives to friends, she outwears her welcome with them all and becomes isolated, alone. Haunted by the memories of her youth, she follows a stranger home because he reminds her of her solider. She befriends a young woman who reminds her of the little girl. Her life is laced with illusion, faces that morph into those who have haunted her past. She is not the only one with a past, living with the effects of trauma and her attempts to reconnect expose her to the nightmares of others, also trying to remember or forget.

“Try telling them some other tales that don’t fit their presumptions. Vietnam” – he dropped his cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.”

Meeting both these strangers changes the course of her life dramatically and will push her to confront her past, revisit her home country and look for what she has lost. And to make amends.

More and more I resembled my own mother as I with-held facts and became an accomplice in helping my daughters obscure their origins.

It’s a hard book to describe and one that is disturbing in parts to read, laced with a sadness for a girl that it seems was unwanted, although she was given opportunities, just not love or affection, in turn her own life seems without purpose and missing something that can be felt not described. Her return will provide her a different perspective and bring her closer to understanding her mother and her intention for her daughter, realising she has something of that in her as well.

“When you leave the old country at an age not young enough to get adopted into the new and not old enough to know how to reject it, you become this mutant thing: between borders, between languages, between memories.” He pressed his temples. “If you ask me, I think it’s easier to reinvent than to retrace. You’re not the only one, you know. Look at this city and its faces. You’re not the only one with an ungraspable history.”

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but it was thought-provoking and made me wonder about the inspiration and experience behind writing it and of the number of sad lives being lived by others, neither from one place nor another, without families, trying to make sense of the world. And of effects of unhealed trauma and displacement.

“If I had two lives to live, I would have done it differently,” she said. “Anything worth having requires your sacrifice, even your personal happiness.”

More than storytelling, despite being fiction, this novel is about what happens to those who leave their homeland, a victim in ways to what they have left, how some are able to manage their past experience, using it to try to improve the situation for others, while others remain a victim to forces and feelings they find difficult to live with, causing them to inflict pain on others or when it gets too much, on themselves, without seeming to, or unable to care who gets hurt in the process.

I am reminded of Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner whose family were evicted from their homeland, she uses fiction in her novel In The Shadow of the Banyan to express memories born of her childhood experience, and although it was traumatic, she was determined to take what was a sad chapter in her country’s history and show us something of its beauty and culture.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve.

This novel was born out of the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past – a personal need to solve my childhood’s mysteries, figure out how I arrived here, and to give myself the emotional conclusions that real life doesn’t afford.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy to read.

Buy a Copy of this book via BookDepository.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) tr. Ellen Jones

As I mentioned in this recent post, this year I’m reading a selection of contemporary Latin American fiction, thanks to a subscription with Charco Press. The first novella for the year is a collection of interconnected short stories, (reminding me of the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s excellent collection Revenge) Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes from Guatemala.

A man named Don Henrik is the connection between the stories, and though he is not the centre of any story until the end, through each tale narrated we come to know the hardships he has encountered as he struggled to run his various business ventures, we learn about the equally difficult life path his brother followed, and how that contributed to his father’s financial difficulties. Though it is not focused on in particular, we also know he is a foreigner, we imagine how his may have contributed to the challenges he and his family have encountered.

Don Henrik seems like a man who wants to live an ordinary life, he has the fortitude to create something out of nothing, he is kind, but he lives in a society where men give in to temptation, and are lead astray by a desire, by greed, by revenge, addiction and so always there are situations to be dealt with. He is an entrepreneur, but still learning the ways of men and nature in his adopted country.

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik  bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted icy, cold spring water. But despite being delicate,  they’re completely savage.  They eat meat, even their own.Little cannibals, my Ermina called them.

Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on Pexels.com

Set in the Guatemalan countryside and forest, it is a place that appears to offer rest and tranquility and yet is beset with an undercurrent of hostility and violence, infiltrated by merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, father’s desperate to go straight, endangering their daughters and their dog, and the plain stupid, caught in a gullible web of thinking they can make easy money, only to meet premature death.

What begins as one of the most endearing stories, becomes the one that almost prevents me finishing the book, involving the relationship between a young calf and a dog, it’s when men come between them that things turn despicable, I couldn’t help but see the young cow as a metaphor for women, who are the usual targets for such brutality.

Some will relate to its Hemingway-esque style, for me it was a straight forward, easy read, though I began to feel like I was reading a book likely to be enjoyed more by men readers, as it launched quickly into a tale of infidelity, of a man with a loyal wife and daughters distracted by a young shop girl, willing to sacrifice everything for a few moments of pleasure; men arriving with guns intent on teaching a lesson to other men, taking out their violent intent on an innocent animal, the bond between two men, their lives and friendship endangered by their descent into drugs and recklessly pursuing an activity (involving a boat and diving) while under the influence.

Personally, I find I have less and less tolerance for stories that depict women in this way, even if it represents a reality, it becomes tiresome. As a reader, I find I’m looking for a paradigm shift in the way female characters are depicted, something I am sure is coming, as I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Don Henrik isn’t the cause of any of this, is it bad karma, neglect or naivety, he is often absent, trusting his partners and workers to get on with the job, it is here that cracks form, that others seize their malevolent opportunity. He is a good man, he donated a kidney to his wife, he is tired, he’s found another good woman and just wants peace, but he’s a land owner, there are those who covet what he has, his desire for tranquility in this world he inhabits, observed by so much dysfunction, is an impossible ask.

Ist edition cover, Francisco Tún artwork

In an interview Fuentes is asked about his writing of this book while living outside of Guatemala and revealed his observation and interest, having moved abroad in how people spoke and expressed themselves. He viewed an accent as something like a regions ideology, that we assumed ours to be neutral, but that it revealed much about how the speaker saw the world.

I look at Guatemala, and it’s a tiny country, but one with very talented narrators. And each region of the country tells stories in different ways. The way people tell stories in the mountains is very different from how people in the eastern part of the country tell them, or those living by the coast, or in the city, undoubtedly; I paid attention to that. I was always interested in the conversations taking place between the city and rural areas. Living abroad allowed me to pay attention to these conversations from a different vantage point, and a character like Henrik enabled me to move back and forth between those two worlds.

In his excellent, expansive review, Tom Blake provides a political perspective of Guatemalan and Latin American literature, suggesting that much of it has centred around themes of ‘displacement, disappearance, deracination’ suggesting that Fuentes offered a different view, the view of those who remain. He acknowledged that Fuentes held up a mirror to a masculine world, though went a little far in my opinion in suggesting that ‘the women hold immense, almost supernatural power’.

In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism. Thomas Blake

Rodrigo FuentesConsidered to be one of the most prominent names among the new generation of Guatemalan writers, Rodrigo Fuentes (1984) won the Carátula Central American Short Story Prize (2014) as well as the Juegos Florales of Quetzaltenango Short Story Prize (2008).

Trout, Belly Up was shortlisted for the 2018 Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez, the most prestigious prize awarded to short-story writers in Latin America. It has been published in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, as well as in France. Rodrigo currently lectures at the College of the Holy Cross in the United States, and lives between Providence and Guatemala. This is his first book to appear in English.

Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.

Further Reading

Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes by José García Escobar

Review of Trout Belly Up by Thomas Blake

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

Article, The Calvert Journal: “Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

Article, Peninsula, Qatar: Russian novel tells story of survival, love in Stalin’s camp

Buy a Copy of Zuleikha via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction – ‘cruzar el charco’

It seems appropriate to begin this post with a word, since this reading and writing adventure takes place word by word, across time and continents. Our word for today is charco which means puddle in Spanish and is also a colloquialism in some Latin American countries referring to the Atlantic Ocean.

And cruzar el charco means crossing the puddle, a way of referring to when someone is leaving the country, taking a trip somewhere far from home, across the ocean.

And this is what I have decided to do in 2019, to take a literary trip across the ocean to Latin America, and I’ll be doing that with the help of Charco Press, a small press based in Edinburgh, creating a bridge of cultural discovery for us to access the richness of that new world with a guide to contemporary literature authors that will likely be unfamiliar to us all.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So this year I have taken a subscription with Charco Press, so I don’t choose the books, I will read whatever they publish in their catalogue in 2019.

This will mean it’s not necessarily going to be something I might ordinarily read, I’ll be reading across borders and outside my comfort zone. But what a journey. No vaccinations required, no need for language classes, although we may still learn a few words along the way.

I have already read the first book and my review will be coming shortly, however, below are summaries of the six books I’ll be reading from this part of the world this year, in case you’d like to join me. As I read them, I’ll link my reviews back to this summary post.

Do let me know if any of these titles interest you, or whether you’ve read any other books published by Charco Press that you have enjoyed.

Click on the title to visit the Charco bookstore.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) (tr. Ellen Jones)

In this highly original collection of interconnected short stories, the Guatemalan countryside is ever-present, a place of timeless peace yet also riven by sudden violence. The stories provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man struck time and again by misfortune, as he confronts the crude realities of farming life. Over the course of these episodes we meet merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, drug dealers and fallen angels, all wanting their piece of the pie. Told with precision and a stark beauty, in a style that recalls Hemingway, Trout, Belly Up is a unique ensemble of beguiling, disturbing stories set in the heart of the rural landscape in a country where violence is never far from the surface.

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina) (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

In Feebleminded, Harwicz drags us to the border between fascination and discomfort as she explores aspects of desire, need and dependency through the dynamics between a mother and her daughter, searching through their respective lives to find meaning and define their own relationship.

Written in a wild stream of consciousness narration in the best tradition of Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute, and embedded in a trend of elusive violence so ingrained in contemporary Latin American fiction, Feebleminded follows the pair on a roller coaster of extreme emotions and examinations into the biographies of their own bodies where everything – from a childhood without answers to a desolate, loveless present – has been buried.

Told through brief but extremely powerful chapters, this short lyrical novel follows Die, My Love (my review here) as the second part in what Harwicz has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’.  An incredibly insightful interrogation on the human condition, desire and the burden of deep-rooted family mandates.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (Argentina) (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste begins in the great pause before a storm. Reverend Pearson is evangelizing across the Argentinian countryside with Leni, his teenage daughter, when their car breaks down. This act of God – or fate – leads them to the home of an aging mechanic called Gringo Brauer and his boy named Tapioca.

As a long day passes, curiosity and intrigue transform into an unexpected intimacy between four people: one man who believes deeply in God, morality, and his own righteousness, and another whose life experiences have only entrenched his moral relativism and mild apathy; a quietly earnest and idealistic mechanic’s assistant, and a restless, sceptical preacher’s daughter. As tensions between these characters ebb and flow, beliefs are questioned and allegiances are tested, until finally the growing storm breaks over the plains.

Selva Almada’s exquisitely crafted début, with its limpid and confident prose, is profound and poetic, a tactile experience of arid landscapes, heat, squat trees, broken cars, sweat-stained shirts, and ruined lives. The Wind That Lays Waste is a philosophical, beautiful, and powerfully distinctive novel that marks the arrival in English of an author whose talent and poise are undeniable.

Loop by Brenda Lozano (Mexico) (tr. Annie McDermott)

Loop is a love story narrated from the point of view of a woman who waits for her boyfriend Jonás to return from a trip to Spain. They met when she was recovering from an accident and he had just lost his mother. Soon after that, they were living together. She waits for him as a sort of contemporary Penelope who, instead of knitting only to then un-knit, she writes and erases her thoughts in a notebook: Proust, a dwarf, a swallow, a dreamy cat or David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’, make up some of the strands that are woven together in this tapestry of longing and waiting.

Written in a sometimes irreverent style, in short fragments that at points are more like haikus than conventional narrative prose, this is a truly original reflection on love, relationships, solitude and the aesthetics and purpose of writing.

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (Colombia) (tr. Sophie Hughes & Juana Adcock)

In a run-down neighbourhood, in an unnamed seaside city with barely any amenities, a father and son struggle to keep their heads above water. Rather than being discouraged by their difficulties and hardship, they are spurred to come up with increasingly outlandish plans for their survival. Even when a terrible, macabre event rocks the neighbourhood’s bar district and the locals start to flee, father and son decide to stay put. What matters is staying together. This is a bold poignant text that interplays a very tender father-son relationship while exposing homosexuality and homophobia with brutal honesty. With delicate lyricism and imagery, Caputo is extremely original and creative producing a tale that harmoniously balances violence, discrimination, love, sex and defiance, demonstrating that the he is a storyteller of great skill.

An Orphan World is about poverty, and the resourceful ways in which people manage to confront it. At the same time, it is a reflection about the body as a space of pleasure and violence. Perhaps above all else, An Orphan World is a brutally honest love letter between a father and son.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) (tr. Iona Macintyre & Fiona Mackintosh)

(* China. Pronounced ‘cheena’: designation for female, from the Quechua. Iron: The English word for Fierro, reference to the gaucho Martín Fierro, from José Hernández’s epic poem.)

This is a riotous romp taking the reader from the turbulent frontier culture of the pampas deep into indigenous territories. It charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to its national struggles. After a clash with Colonel Hernández (the author who ‘stole’ Martín Fierro’s poems) and a drunken orgy with gauchos, they eventually find refuge and a peaceful future in a utopian indigenous community, the river- dwelling Iñchiñ people.

Seen from an ox-drawn wagon, the narrative moves through the Argentinian landscape, charting the flora and fauna of the Pampas, Gaucho culture, Argentinian nation-building and British colonial projects.

In a unique reformulation of history and literary tradition, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, with humour and sophistication, re-writes Martín Fierro from a feminist, LGBT, postcolonial point of view. She creates a hilarious novel that is nevertheless incisive in its criticism of the way societies come into being, and the way they venerate mythical heroes.

***********

Some promising, diverse explorations across this puddle, I do hope you might join me at one of these destinations!

Further Reading: Exposing the UK to Contemporary Latin American Literature

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko

Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

I’ve not read any of Dani Shapiro’s previous works, this short book was passed to me by a friend and read in an afternoon. I enjoyed reading it, though I couldn’t say I related to it. It’s a very personal observation of a marriage, of the passage of time, a woman observing herself change, reflecting on her inclinations and trying to understand herself, her husband and their evolving relationship. As the title indicates, it’s a reflection on time passing, on memory and on marriage.

It’s full of nostalgia for moments passed, brought back to life as she picks up journals from girlhood and her earlier life and quotes from them, in particular, from her honeymoon spent in France. She wonders about the woman she was then.

She worries about the lack of a plan, despite being in her fifties and her husband almost sixty. She shares these anxious moments, as she begins to lose a little faith in the words her husband has uttered in the past, words that gave her reassurance “I’ll take care of it”.

Anyone who has lived with that kind of comfort will likely relate, but inherent within it lies a deep vulnerability, a fissure, a unassuageable fear of loss. It is here her words pierce the fabric of living, when they illuminate the cracks in the facade, opening a small window into that anxiety-inducing perception of reality that sees itself as separate.

It is that undercurrent of misplaced fear that disconcerts me, for there is no hint of resolution, little evidence of a desire to go within and face the abyss, to heal it. She remains focused on that which is external and therein perhaps lies the problem. Maybe that is a memoir still to come, when she will embark on the inner journey and learn to listen to her own guidance, to the whispers of her soul that are capable of reassuring her more than anyone or anything on the outside. Something that marriage appears to protect us from, at least until menopause, a subject she doesn’t mention but one that can also unravel our perceptions of the life structures we’ve created in our minds.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

It is a work of quietly observed transformation, the writer is trying to observe herself from both without and within, she has a long experience of observing from a distance and now she feels the pull to go within, yet it’s as if she has only just begun to put her toe in the river. She is aware of the pull of the river and quotes from Virginia Woolf:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths…But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason – that it destroys the fullness of life – any break… causes me great distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depths into hard splinters. As I say to L[eonard]: “What’s there real about this? Shall we ever live a real life again?

She recalls that she used to tell her students that to write good memoir, the kind that would be of interest to the disinterested reader, the writer had to have some distance from the material, not to write from feelings but from the wisdom and insight of retrospect.

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present – the only place from which the writer can tell the story – continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather  them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary fragment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it?  Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

And so as her reflections come to an end, they indicate that she may be at another beginning.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass.  I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsing thing that is true. Why now?  What is this insistence?  All of me – the whole crowd – wants to know.

I am left intrigued to know what she will write next, where her inner journey will take her, when she lets go of looking through the lens of marriage, time and memory and observes life through a newly expanded awareness.

Man Booker International Prize shortlist 2019 – #translatedfiction

The Man Booker International Prize, celebrates newly translated fiction into English; this years judges have now whittled their long list down to six titles, giving us this interesting and diverse shortlist below. Though you’ll find a lot of translated fiction on the pages of this blog, it’s a niche that’s dominated by small publishers, so less known and indulged by the wider reading public.

Things are changing however and readers are becoming more discerning and aware of being made to seem ignorant by publishers who’ve stuck predominantly to nationalistic loyalties. I say this personally, as I discovered when I moved to France that without even making an effort you are just as likely here to read Russian, Colombian or Japanese authors as you are French authors. 45% of their fiction is translated! 5% of ours is.

Do we really only want to be offered stories written by authors from one country, to read thoughts generated in the imagination of only one original language?

Though we are in a climate of Brexit and an era of vociferous intolerance towards multiculturalism; storytelling and literature in translation offer a quiet route to developing empathy and understanding of ‘the other’ and a reminder that we can both learn something new and find the familiar in words from elsewhere.

The prize equally awards the translator, which should boost the industry and help translators take on more projects bringing us more excellent literature from elsewhere. The shortlist includes five languages, Arabic, French, German, Polish and Spanish from six different cultures.

Bettany Hughes, chair of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, said:

‘Wisdom in all its forms is here. Unexpected and unpredictable narratives compelled us to choose this vigorous shortlist. Subversive and intellectually ambitious with welcome flashes of wit, each book nourishes creative conversation. We were struck by the lucidity and supple strength of all the translations.’

The six titles are listed below, summaries edited from the prize’s website: click on title to purchase a copy.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman) tr. Marilyn Booth (Arabic) Sandstone Press

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who emigrated to Canada. The three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society, slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, it tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.

“No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship, pain and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.” Jokha Alharti

The Years by Annie Ernaux(France) tr. Alison Strayer (French) Fitzcarraldo Editions

Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist’s defining work, a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present, photos, books, songs, radio, television, advertising, and news headlines. Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for ever-proliferating objects are given voice. The author’s voice continually dissolves and re-emerges as Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective, a remembrance of things past.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann tr. Jen Calleja (German) Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail

When Gilbert, a journeyman lecturer on beard fashions awakes from a dream that his wife has cheated on him, he flees to Japan. In discovering the travel writings of the great Japanese poet Basho, he finds a purpose: a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the poet to see the moon rise over the pine islands of Matsushima. Falling in step with another pilgrim – a Japanese student with a copy of The Complete Manual of Suicide – Gilbert travels across Basho’s disappearing Japan with Yosa, one in search of his perfect ending and the other a new beginning that might give his life meaning. A serene, playful, moving story of the transformations we seek and those we find along the way.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Polish) Fitzcarraldo Editions

In a remote village in south-west Poland Janina Dusezjko, an eccentric woman in her 60s, describes the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, she becomes involved in the investigation. No conventional crime story, this novel offers thought-provoking ideas on perceptions of madness, social injustice against people who are marginalised, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, and belief in predestiny.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia) tr. Anne McLean (Spanish) Quercus, MacLehose Press

Pacing the dark corridors of a hospital during the birth of his twin daughters, Juan Gabriel Vásquez befriends a physician. Through him he meets Carlos Carballo, a man consumed by a conspiracy theory about the assassination of a politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. He tries to persuade Vásquez to write a novel about the murder, but despite repeated refusals Vásquez is drawn into the conspiracy when Gaitán’s vertebrae, stored in a glass jar at a mutual friend’s house, goes missing. Sparking a turn of events, Varquez opens up a second, darker conspiracy about the assassination of another politician, Rafael Uribe Uribe, in 1914.

“It’s a novel about past violences written at a time in which my country was trying to find some form of present peace. It turns around two political murders that shaped Colombian history in the twentieth century, and it uses them to think about the ways in which violence can be inherited: an act committed half a century ago can influence and even determine our private lives in the present. Deep down, how does political violence work? How does it change our private lives?” Juan Gabriel Vasquez

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish) And Other Stories

Santiago, Chile. The city is covered in ash. Three children of ex-militants are facing a past they can neither remember nor forget. Felipe sees dead bodies on park benches, counting them in an obsessive quest to tally figures with the official death toll. He is searching for the perfect zero, a life with no remainder. Iquela and Paloma are also searching for a way to live on. When the body of Paloma’s mother gets lost in transit, the three take a hearse and a handful of pills up the cordillera for a road trip with a difference. Intense, intelligent, and extraordinarily sensitive to the shape and weight of words, this remarkable debut presents a new way to count the cost of generational trauma.

******

I haven’t read any of the titles shortlisted, I’ve been watching since the long list came out, the one that most intrigues me is Celestial Bodies, because it promises to highlight aspects of Oman’s history as shown through the story of three sister’s lives. While The Shape of the Ruins sounds intriguing, I’m a little wary of it seeming a little like Roberto Bolano’s 2666 another lengthy South American novel that centred around unsolved murders, that was too much for me.

I’m also intrigued by Olga Tokarczuk’s latest, she won the prize last year, though this is said to be a different and lighter read to Flights that can be read on multiple levels, with its elements of mystery, nature writing and reflective, philosophical inclinations.

So have you read any of the novels on the shortlist? Do you already have a favourite?

The winner will be announced on May 21.