Transit by Anna Seghers tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo #WITMonth and an Urban Balade in Marseille

I have wanted to read this novel for a while, ever since reading Jacqui’s review a few years ago. With August focused on #womenintranslation and being asking for a suggestion for our upcoming bookclub, it seemed the perfect moment to read it.

It is an incredible novel, written in a surreal time, while the writer was living in exile in Mexico, Anna Seghers (having left Germany in 1933 to settle in France) was forced (with her husband and two children) to flee from Marseille in 1940, the only port in France at that time that still flew the French flag, the rest under German occupation.

With the help of Varian Fry, (see his autobiography Surrender on Demand) an American journalist who came to Marseille for a year and helped 1500 artists, writers, intellectuals escape Europe; they found safe passage to Mexico, where they stayed until able to return to East Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1983.

While in Mexico she wrote this thought-provoking, accomplished, “existential, political, literary thriller” novel narrated by a 27-year-old German man who has escaped two labour camps (in Germany and France) before arriving in Paris where he promises to do a favour for a friend, coming into possession of a suitcase of documents belonging to a German writer named Weidel, who he learns has taken his own life.

There is an element of the absurd in many of the encounters throughout the entire novel, and one of the first is when the young meets the hotel proprietor, inconvenienced by the death of this man in her establishment, which she’d had to officially register and arrange for burial, she complains that he’d caused her more trouble than the German invasion and that they hadn’t ended there and goes into detail.

“Don’t think that my troubles are over. This man has actually managed to create trouble for me from beyond the grave.”

Our unnamed narrator offers to assist, requiring him to travel to Marseille, where he hopes to stay indefinitely. To avoid checkpoints, he leaves the train a few stops early and descends into the city.

Walking down from the hills, I came to the outer precincts of Marseille. At a bend in the road I saw the sea far below me. A bit later I saw the city itself spread out against the water. It seemed as bare and white as an African city. At last I felt calm. It was the same calm that I experience whenever I like something very much. I almost believed I had reached my goal. In this city, I thought, I could find everything I’d been looking for, that I’d always been looking for. I wonder how many times this feeling will deceive me on entering a strange city!

Descending into Marseille today

Alongside many others genuinely trying to flee, we follow him to hotels, cafes, consulates, shipping offices, travel bureaus and stand in line as he apples for visa and stamps that he has little vested interest in, observing the absurd demands made of people trying to find safe passage to what they hope is a free world. He is given a one month residency and then settles in to watch the world go by, ignoring that he must still establish his intention.

By now I felt part of the community. I had a room of my own, a friend, a lover; but the official at the Office for Aliens on the Rue Louvois had a different view of things. He said, “You must leave tomorrow. We only allow foreigners to stay here in Marseille if they can bring us proof that they intend to leave. You have no visa, in fact not even the prospect of getting one. There is no reason for us to extend your residence permit.”

The man he knows is dead, has a wife widow waiting for him in Marseille, her story becomes part of the young man’s quest, in this transitory city that holds a thin promise of a lifeline to the fulfillment of desperate dreams for so many refugees.

The complexity of requirements means many more are rejected than succeed and all risk being sent to one of the camps that the authorities without hesitation dispatch those whose papers are not in order.

Our narrator is independent, without family and not in possession of a story that invokes sympathy in the reader. A drifter without purpose, he likes the city and wants to stay. His circumstance removes something of the terror and tragedy of what people around him are going through, allowing the reader to see the situation outside of the tragic humanitarian crisis it was.

Instead we witness the absurd situation people have been put in, the endless, near impossible bureaucratic demands refugees encounter, when they are forced to flee homes they don’t want to leave, to go to a safe(r) place equally they don’t necessarily wish to go to, but will do so to survive and in an attempt to keep their families together. And the irony or blindness of those around them who continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Sometimes you find real Frenchmen sitting in the Brûleurs des Loups. Instead of talking about visas, they talk about sensible things like the shady deals that go on. I even heard them mention a certain boat that was sailing for Oran. While the Mont Vertoux customers prattle on about all the details of booking a passage on a ship, these people were discussing the particulars of the cargo of copper wire.

I highlighted so many passages that I will go back and reread, it’s a fascinating book that could perhaps only have been written from the safety of exile and from the perspective of the everyday man and woman, without going into detail about the reasons for their haste, for even a safe place can become unsafe, and a manuscript sufficient to sign a death warrant. And even though this book was written 77 years ago, there is much about the bureaucracy that continues to ring true for immigrants in Europe today.

Marseill’s thoroughfare, Le Canibiére

The depiction of Marseille, though in a time of terror is evocative too of that city today, only the places mentioned here are now frequented by people from a different set of countries, those who have fled or left in search of something better in the last 30 years, from parts of Africa, Vietnam, Lebanon and those who just need to disappear for a while, finding anonymity and comradeship in the small alleys and cafes of Marseille, a city of temporary refuge, where everyone has a story that begins elsewhere.

Immigrants of the 21st century – Balade de Noailles

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I visited a quartier of Marseille, just off Le Canibiére, called Noailles, with a small group of university professors, looking to know the city’s immigrant population and influence a little better in anticipation of further developing their teaching classes to incorporate the reality of today.

Bénédicte Sire & One of the Legends of Noailles

The personal tour was guided by local comedien/actress/director, Bénédicte Sire, who introduced us to a new generation of immigrants who’ve adopted Marseille as their home. We visited them in their shops tasting their food while listening to personal family stories, which were narrated either by Bénédicte taking on the persona of a relative, or a combination of her oral storytelling and the shop owner narrating.

It was perhaps the most informative and personal visit I’ve ever made to Marseille, and was like a live version of the many novels I’ve read, translated from countries far away, only here they are living in a city 25 minutes away, facilitated by a warm, cheerful, empathetic woman who has developed authentic relationships with her fellow residents, gently opening them to trust in sharing their often traumatic, personal stories with outsiders genuinely interested to know.

Highly Recommended if you ever visit the city of Marseille and wish to see it from within.

Buy a Copy of Transit via Book Depository

Top 10 Books by Women In Translation #100BestWIT

Meytal Radzinski, the founder of #WITMonth, an initiative to encourage people to read more books by women that have been translated from another language, therefore promoting diversity, has asked readers to share their top 10 ten books by women writers in translation.

I initially shared mine in a thread on twitter, but since not everyone uses twitter, I thought I’d share my ten reads here as well before #WITMonth starts (August 1st) and if I can manage it, I may even share a picture of the pile of books from which I hope to read during August.

So here are my top 10 reads of books by women in translation, with links to my reviews, not in any particular order, although I have to say the first probably is my absolute favourite.

My Top 10 Books by Women in Translation

1. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart (Guadeloupe) tr.Barbara Bray (French)

– the life of Telumee, the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. My Outstanding Read of 2016.

“a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions”

2. Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)tr. Richard Philcox (French)

– essays of her early years in Guadeloupe, her education, and growing awareness of her ignorance of literature from the Caribbean & her own family history, when she moves to further her studies in Paris.

The ideal introduction to her many wondrous novels, including her masterpiece, the historical novel Segu and the novel of her grandmother’s life Victoire, My Mother’s Mother.

3. Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden (Russian)

– an historical novel inspired by the author’s grandmother’s memories of exile in a Russian gulag (labour camp), published in English 100 years since the gulags first began in Russia.

The novel  follows the story of a young woman for whom exile is a kind of emancipation, freed from the tyranny of marriage, she finds a new role and skills despite the hardship, and experiences genuine love for the first time.

4. The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi (Iraq) tr. Luke Leafgren (Arabic)

– Slightly surreal, nostalgic, deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of childhood and early youth lived in the shadow of war.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

5. Disoriental by Negar Djavadi (Iran) tr. Tina Kover (French)

– the story of a family forced to flee Iran, a family history, a modern young woman now living in France, sits in a fertility clinic but something about her situation isn’t as it should be, she reflects on the past, while waiting to control the outcome of her present, a clash of the old and the new.

“That’s the tragedy of exile. Things, as well as people, still exist, but you have to pretend to think of them as dead.”

6. So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ (Senegal) tr. Modupé Bodé Thomas (French)

– an epistolary novella, a letter from a widow to her best friend, reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, unable to detach from memories of better times, a lament.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

7. The Complete Claudine by Colette (France) tr. Antonia White (French)

– Claudine at school, in Paris, in Marriage and with her friend Annie, the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom vs the the slap in the face of an approaching adult, urban world.

“a novel that anticipates by ninety years, the contemporary fashion for wry, first-person narratives by single, thirty something career women. Its heroine examines her addictions to men with amused detachment, and flirts, alternately, with abstinence and temptation. Is there love without complete submission and loss of identity? Is freedom really worth the loneliness that pays for it? These are Colette’s abiding questions.”

8. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata (Arabic)

– an Egyptian woman is imprisoned for killing a man, soon to be executed. Nawal El Saadawi gains permission to interview before her death. A spell-binding tale of lifelong oppression & desire to be free of it, told with compassionate sensitivity.

The idea of ‘prison’ had always exercised a special attraction for me. I often wondered what prison life was like, especially for women. Perhaps this was because I lived in a country where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences’. My husband had been imprisoned for thirteen years as a ‘political detainee’.

9. Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith (Korean)

– the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980 witnessed from multiple perspectives, an attempt at understanding humanity.

At night, though, when all the grown-ups were all sitting in the kitchen and I knew I’d be safe…I crept into the main room in search of that book. I scanned every spine until finally I got to the top shelf; I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.

10. The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) tr. Shaun Whiteside (German)

– living behind an invisible wall, alone, with a few animals, a stream of consciousness narrative of one woman’s courageous survival, using the feminine instinct .

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece.

If you have a top 5 or 10 to share, or even just one favourite, share it on twitter or instagram using the hashtag below:

The Gold Letter by Lena Manta (Greece) tr. Gail Holst-Warhaft

Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many.

Turkish Proverb

Greek and Turkish histories go back a long way, and I profess to knowing little about them, however it’s clear that whichever people you belong to there is likely to be a bias towards their stories, and it as likely that these populations are more mixed than they would like to believe, that there have been generations of cheerful intermingling, despite the differences that keep their identities separate.

The Gold Letter is a story of Greek families living in what was then known as Constantinople (later renamed as Istanbul, one of many name changes – The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks ), and how the same twist of fate affects three generations of the same two families, where a young woman and a young man fall in love, only to have the union thwarted by their parents – in each generation it is for a different reason, beginning with them not being of the same wealth and social status, where marriage was more of a contract between families decided by the father’s.

He had married her not, of course, because he loved her, but because that was what her father had decided…Nobody thought of asking Kleoniki if she wanted to marry the grim Anargyros, with his rough hands and even rougher personality. Besides it was thought to be a very good marriage, since the groom was prosperous and an orphan.
“A big thing, that, my dear!” the matchmaker informed the girl. “Neither a mother-in-law in your face nor a father-in-law to boss you round. Lady and mistress of your own house!”

And in case they thought about falling into the temptations of forbidden love, there were frequent reminders of the sins of those who’d done so and had to flee, “discussed with horror and scorn in hushed voices at evening gatherings and tea parties”.

Even if some woman, deep down inside, understood the girl, she didn’t dare say so. Many romantic souls sighed secretly, calculating what a great love the girl must have felt to run off with her beloved, overlooking the fact that he was a Turk.

Though the son’s obey their fathers and the families are estranged, fate’s determined magnetism continues to bring  subsequent generations together.

He couldn’t shame his father; they hadn’t raised him that way. And the blood of the revolution didn’t run in his veins. He would have to bury his heart.

An abandoned house in Turkey

The story and family history are narrated in the present day as a middle age woman Fenia, arrives from Germany having been summoned by a family lawyer in Athens and told she has inherited a house from a grandfather she never met.

She decides to stay and do up the house and various knocks at the door lead her to meet two relatives, one bearing good wishes, the other hostility and through them she will fill in the gaps in their shared history.

And what is this Gold Letter – a beautiful gift imagined and designed by one son, that becomes an heirloom that will find its way into Fenia’s hands and connect the stories together.

I was a little skeptical when I began reading due to the clear prejudices of the characters, whether it was Greeks against Turks or the attitude of the men towards women and certainly the women in all these generations suffer greatly, those in the present day perhaps most of all. They were indicative of their time and sadly of  reality in some lands where country borders have moved and changed over the years when not everyone can flee, yet they remember the violence and deaths of members of their families in the past, which continues to keep them separate and untrusting for generations.

“My girl, sometimes you meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”

I was reminded of the wonderful novel about a friendship between two children in the same village, one of Greek and one of Turkish origin by Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, also a tragic love story, but one that combines the story of ordinary people’s lives in the 1930’s with a biography of the leader that will shift the balance of power in Turkey. One of my all time favourite books, exceptional.

I enjoyed reading The Gold Letter, covering three generations means there are many characters and connections to juggle so not much time is spent with some. That said, it’s clear the author is a gifted storyteller invested in her characters, whom I enjoyed following.

At times I felt almost like I was watching this on film, it’s an entertaining, episodic family drama of the old tradition, of couples trying to keep up family and cultural traditions as life modernises and social, political circumstances force change.

Lena Manta was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Greek parents and moved to Greece at a very young age. She lives in Athens, has written 13 books and this is her second to be translated into English.

Buy a copy of The Gold Letter via Book Depository

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (France) tr. Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce

Another satisfying light read full of laughs from Antoine Laurain. It’s so rare that a book actually makes me laugh out loud, but this one did, quite a few times.

It’s far-fetched, but knowing he writes an uplifting tale and creates such fun characters makes me want to read everything he writes.

Here, its 2017 and we meet a Parisian man named Hubert who lives in a building that has been in his family for generations, though now he owns only the apartment he lives in. His wife and daughters are away, he had just attended the management committee meeting for residents and on entering his cellar afterwards discovered a dusty 1954 Vintage Beaujolais.

Accidentally locking himself in, he is rescued by Bob from Milwaukee, who’s rented Madame Renaud’s apartment on AirBnB, an activity forbidden by the committee (say you’re the American cousin if anyone asks) so in a gesture of appreciation Hubert invites Bob and two tenants Julien (a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar) and Magalie (a restorer of antique ceramics) to join him to open the bottle.

1954 was a special year and the novel has already taken us to the Saint Antoine vineyards in the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon where the grapes may have been infused with a touch of magic from a low flying unidentified object.

Monsieur Pierre Chauveau (Julien’s great grandfather) gave a witness statement on 16 September 1954, describing what he had seen. His unusual testimony was classified by the police as follows:

Report of an unidentified flying object by one Pierre Chauveau, a wine grower residing in Charmally-les-Vignes.

Though mocked locally, the police weren’t as surprised, by the end of 1954 more than 1,000 witness statements and over 500 reports of UFO sightings had been received by the police across the country. No explanation for this phenomenon was ever found and gradually the number of reported sightings fell back to normal levels – between fifty and one hundred a year.

One evening shortly after, he consumed a bottle of the 1954 Beaujolais, gave some to his dog (as was his habit), went out for a walk and they were never seen again.

The morning after the four in Paris drink the vintage wine, they wake up in 1954.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

As they head out into their day, we too are taken back in time and see the city and people’s habits as they were back in the 1950’s. Bob, who had never been to Paris took the longest time to realise he was no longer in 2017.

The four of them have various interesting encounters, Hubert with a long lost relative whose charred diary he finds in the apartment he left empty for 24 years, Julien meets the original Harry MacElhone, founder of the bar he works in and Magalie seeks out her now thirty-one-year old grandmother Odette.

They meet up at Harry’s to discuss their situation and to come up with a plan on how to get themselves back to their present, which will lead them on another adventure to the wine region of Beaujolais.

It’s an entertaining ride, as they journey across old Paris bringing back to life a few memorable characters and places in Paris of a bygone era.

Along the way, we encounter Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Robert Doisneau, Marcel Aymé, Jacques Prévert, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, the duke of Windsor and the infamous Scotsman of the winebar where the Bloody Mary was said to be invented, Harry MacElhone.

In a blog post Millésime 54 Antoine Laurain briefly mentions that readers will come across these characters in his book and if you click through you’ll see a collection of portraits of some of them.

Le Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

These encounters reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, except here, Antoine Laurain pays tribute to more renowned French celebrity characters of Paris, and its the 1950’s not the 1920’s, inviting the reader to discover who they were and where they used to hang out.

In an interview, Laurain explained that the idea of writing a story where his characters travelled back to the 1950’s came to him long ago, before he wrote The President’s Hat. He adored the work of Doisneau and Brassaï, but he needed a way to bring them back to era. The wine became the way and that surge in UFO sightings that actually occurred in 1954, his point of departure.

Vintage 1954 is an invitation to the reader’s imagination to join Laurain’s adventure in 50’s Paris, to discover the vineyards of the Beaujolais region, and is as pleasurable, if not more than the wine itself.

A full-bodied, sweet novella, with depth, elegance, it is expressive, connected, ultimately one of finesse.

Further Reading

Interview Q&A with Antoine Laurain by Gallic Books – Wine and time travel with Antoine Laurain

The Book Trail Vintage 1954 – a few of the book locations in Paris mapped out with explanations (also links to locations in his previous books)

The President’s Hat (reviewed here)

The Red Notebook (reviewed here)

Smoking Kills (reviewed here)

Buy a Copy of Vintage 1954 via Book Depository

Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

Buy a Copy of Secret via Book Depository

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.