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.

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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

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.

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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.

Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo tr. Howard Curtis

I’ve been looking forward to picking this novel up, because it’s set in and around the streets and coastal inlets of Marseilles (our local city) and even ventures into Aix-en-Provence and Vauvenargues (the scene of a murder in the novel – though known locally because Picasso lived in the château there). It was originally published in French in 1995, when Izzo was 50 years old, a mere five years before his premature passing.

Fabio Montale used to hang out with his friends Manu and Ugo, when they were growing up in the same neighbourbood of Marseilles. They were eyeing up his cousin Angèle as he escorted her home after a family visit. That first time he encountered them, they insulted him, he lashed out and got into a scuffle. He didn’t see them again until September, when they found themselves in the same class. They became firm friends.

Fast forward, they’re separated during compulsory military training, on their return they’ve become men.

Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is better than no life at all.

Discovering that even hard work doesn’t promise fast, easy money they think about opening a bookstore, but need funding, it’s the beginning of the slippery slope into a criminal life. They soon forget about the shop, having too much fun chasing danger and celebrating its rewards. Until it gets serious and someone gets hurt.

Looking at the city from my balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front of me, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop.

They haven’t seen each other for years and now Manu has been killed. Fabio has become a cop but hasn’t been put on this case, regardless, he makes it his personal responsibility to find out what happened.

They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done.

Vauvenargues, scene of a murder

As the story unfolds, he identifies who is involved in local criminal factions, the mafia, and attempts to unravel how his friend had come between them.

We meet an immigrant family, a father and his three children, whose mother died giving birth to the youngest. Having encountered them over a skirmish in a shop in one of the projects, Fabio befriends them. When a member of the family disappears, the two stories begin to overlap and Fabio has another more immediate crime to solve.

Each chapter takes us to another corner of Marseilles, each car ride and return home to the fishing village of Les Goudes (my pictures below) introduces us to a segment of music and the women in his life; while there may not be a peaceful solution to the pervasive bitterness and revenge laced throughout Izzo’s fragmented world, one thing offers him temporary respite and hope is music. It represents the cultural richness and diversity of this city, populated by a mix of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants.

(If you’re interested in what those musical instruments are doing in Les Goudes, read my post here – Champ Harmonique MP2013)

All this creates not just the plot of a crime story, but a picture of a man immersed and entangled in his complex city, attached to his familial village, his boat, the sea his refuge and his reliable motherly neighbour Honorine, who makes up for some of the lack in his life.

Although I was a good listener, I was never any good at confiding in anyone. At the last moment, I always clammed up. I was always ready to lie, rather than talk about what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the courage. I just didn’t trust anyone. Not enough, anyhow, to put my life and my feelings in another’s hands. And I knocked myself out trying to solve everything on my own. The vanity of a loser. I had to face it, I’d lost everything in my life.

It’s a journey through the senses, that penetrates the heart and soul of an unforgiving city whose inhabitants love it fiercely, in the pursuit of keeping a promise made in youth.

In a moving eulogy transcribed in the front of the book, Massimo Carlotto pays tribute to Izzo over his adept mastery of  Mediterranean noir, different to French noir:

His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation’s collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day.

Jean-Claude Izzo when asked about the phenomenal success of his trilogy, characteristically chose to shine the light on the city he loved:

“Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.”

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for providing a review copy.

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Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette (France) tr. Alison Anderson

As soon as I saw the cover of Sandrine Collette’s Nothing But Dust I wanted to read this book. I didn’t know what genre it was, but it was published by Europa Editions; all the books they choose to publish that I have read have been excellent.

From the description, a family of four boys working a farm after their father’s departure, ruled by a tyrannical mother, lived out on an arid, lonely Patagonian steppe, mounting family tensions…

And comparisons like these:

Reminiscent of Coetzee’s Disgrace, Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the Dust Bowl novels of Steinbeck, the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and the southern gothic of William Faulkner, Nothing But Dust is a gripping, unsentimental, ultimately majestic story about life in one the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Now I haven’t read Chatwin or Faulkner, and I don’t often agree with book comparisons, however reading this book did remind me of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Border Trilogy, in particular his coming of age novel All the Pretty Horses, which I loved.

We know how tough and relentless life is, and is going to continue to be from the opening pages as the elder twin brothers carry out their favourite cruel tricks on the youngest brother Raphael; they’re fearful of the mother, but know she won’t intervene, her ideas on how to raise boys doesn’t include protecting or consoling them. Young Raphael becomes the son the reader will sympathise with and wish things for, throughout this thrilling novel.

Because he was the youngest, his brothers had gotten into the habit of chasing him around the house on horseback when their mother wasn’t watching. As soon as the twins had grown strong enough to grab him by the collar and lift him up at a gallop from astride their criollos, it became their favourite pastime.

It’s a novel of survival, not just the physical hard work, the long days but the need of the two younger brothers to always be on alert, Steban they call the half-wit, silenced by what he has seen, not trusting anyone, his allegiances drift knowing he is unable to stand up to any of them.

He realises that for as long as he can remember, he has always been flanked by anxiety. The apprehension of the next blow, the insults. And everything else.

We become immersed in this life on a sheep farm with The Mother, her four sons, a dog named Three and the Criollos they ride, on the arid, infertile steppe they live on in Patagonia. All they’ve known and grown up with is harsh and menacing, reliably so; all they know is work, for her.

There are evenings when she reminds herself that she came from a family of wretches with neither land nor fortune, and that everything seemed to point to a future of working herself to the bone in the service of others, and she grumbles and ruminates, finds a thousand things wrong with the steppe she’s been left with – well, that was the least she was owed, after all the misery she endured year after year. There is no room for gratitude in the mother’s life: what she has, she deserves.

When The Mother makes her first mistake, it opens a crack in her tight-fisted way of ruling the way they live, a slipway through which things might be different, we are lead out of the plateau towards the forest, towards the light with a deft, atmospheric thrill and underlying dread.

When Raphael must track down two missing horses, he is lead out of the steppe towards lands that are unfamiliar, encountering new terrain. While Sandrine Collette has demonstrated a talent for creating unforgettable characters, here she excels in depicting the landscape as it changes from the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau to the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest.

The change of landscape leaves him stunned; all he has ever known is the treeless steppe. He looks up at the magnificent boughs, the changing hues of entire regions where the rain has ventured…

Goes and sits down.

If he was at the farm he would never do this, but solitude and freedom propel him.

As the mother exhibits weakness, loosening her indomitable control over the boys, the rage of the elder twin begins to rise. It is that Lord of the Flies moment, that human impulse towards savagery no longer contained by the mother’s warped rules supposed to keep it in check. The mother and the elder son embrace that savagery and as long as they are in unison, they rule. The younger sons represent civilisation, violence is not their instrument. They observe, learn, they seek a different way.

It’s a fantastic, compelling novel of the human condition, in an original setting and family dynamic. Thought provoking, atmospheric, charged with tension, it will stay with you long after reading.

Highly Recommended.

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

***

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Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

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N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.