The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre

Wow. This is quietly revolutionary. And funny. Educational. Expansive. Luminous. Brilliant.

I want it to win.

Drawing inspiration from other texts that have in turn been inspired by a life, or experience lived in Argentina, whether the epic poem ‘the gaucho’ Martin Fierro by José Hernández (a lament for a disappearing way of life) or the autobiography Far Away & Long Ago of the naturalist  William Henry Hudson, The Adventures of China Iron is a beautiful elegy (for there will be consolation), a brilliant feat of the imagination that takes readers on an alternative journey.

China Iron, wife of Martin Fierro, who in the original version was given just a few lines, is now the lead and is about to awaken to all that is and can be.

Her adventure is a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia, from naive to knowledgeable, from woman to young brother to lover, from unconscious to awakened, from surviving to aware to thriving.

While I was writing I felt I was describing the mind-blowing experience of being a newborn since in China’s eyes everything is new and has the shape and shininess of a new discovery. She is trying out her freedom, travelling for the first time, leaving the tiny settlement in which she had spent her whole life. She is discovering the world, the different paths through it, love. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Part One – The Pampas
China was passed over to Martin Fierro in holy matrimony in a card game. She bore him two children before he was conscripted, what a relief. Scottish Liz had her husband Oscar taken in error, so she packs a wagon to go and find the land they’ve procured, taking China and the dog Estreya with her. This is the beginning of China’s awakening, she will learn from Liz and being in nature, on the move.

Who knows what storms Liz had weathered. Maybe loneliness. She had two missions in life: to resuce her gringo husband and to take charge of the estancia they they were to oversee.

Liz informs China about the ways of the British Empire, clothing, manners, geography, Indian spices, African masks. Some things she understands, others take longer to reconcile. She discovers ‘a birds eye view’ from up there on the wagon.

And I began to see other perspectives: the Queen of England – a rich, powerful woman who owned millions of people’s lives, but who was sick and tired of jewels and of meals in palaces built where she was monarch of all she surveyed – didn’t see the world in the same way as, for example a gaucho in his hovel with his leather hides who burns dung to keep warm.

For the Queen the world was a sphere filled with riches belonging to her, and that she could order to be extracted from anywhere; for the gaucho, the world was a flat surface where you galloped around rounding up cows, cutting the throats of your enemies before they cut your own throat, or fleeing conscription or battles.

China leaves behind neglect and enters the realm of non-violent company, nourishment and knowledge. She comes to think of the wagon as home and falls for Liz’s charm. They track Indians by examining the dung of their animals. When they see it’s fresh, they stop and change.

I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad.

Photo by Juanjo Menta on Pexels.com

They encounter a lone gaucho (cowboy) Rosario and his herd of cows, he becomes the fourth member of their party. We learn his tragic backstory as well. He laughs at China’s clothing, but says it’s a good idea and that all women should carry a knife the way men do.

We knew he was talking about his mother and how he’d have preferred her to have grown a beard if it meant she’d have stayed a widow with him by her side instead of that monster.

They make slow progress, in part due to China’s desire that this in-between peaceful co-existence, the happiest she’s ever experienced, never ends.

In Part Two, The Fort – they arrive at the estancia run by Hernandez, they dress in their chosen uniforms Liz had allocated from the stores inside the wagon;

uniforms for every kind of position on the estancia according to the imagination of the aristocrat and his stewards, Liz and Oscar.

Here they come across the opposite of what they’d found in the plains, here is a world run by the self-righteous Hernandez, who runs his estancia like a dictatorial regime, with strict rules and regulation, reward and punishment, inspiring hatred and allowing revenge. Seeing himself as the seed of civilisation, others as savages with no sense of history and the gauchos as his protegé, he sets out to retrain them in his ways, with a whip and a rod.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Part Three – Indian Territory
In the final part they come into contact with the indigenous population and even the air feels easier to breathe. Here the language changes, perception changes, there is acceptance, equilibrium, reunion.

This whole section reminded me of the shape-shifting shamans, of a higher perception or consciousness, living with the indigenous people allows them to let go of all expectations and see with different eyes.

“Although we have been made
to believe that if we let go
we will end up with nothing,
life reveals just the opposite:
that letting go is
the real path to freedom.”

– Soygyal Rinpoche

I absolutely loved this, I hope it wins the International Booker 2020 thoroughly deserving in my opinion.

Ever since I had the idea of giving China a voice, I had one thing clear in my mind: I wanted her tale to be an experience of the beauty of nature, freedom in body and mind; a story of all the potential and possibilities in store when you encounter other people, of the beauty of light. I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Further Reading

Interview: International Booker Prize 2020 Interview with author and translators

Top Five Translated Fiction #StayAtHome

As you may know I like to read Translated Fiction.

Tilted Axis Press who published the award winning Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts asked me to write an article about why I read translated fiction, so rather than repeat myself, if you are interested in a deeper explanation you can read more about my motivations by clicking on the link below:

“Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution” by Claire McAlpine

At the end of the article is a list of titles I recommended with links to my reviews. But for today I’m just going to pull up from my memory five books that have stayed with me that at the time of reading transported me elsewhere and that I remember being excellent and memorable reads.

That’s one of the reasons I continue to love reading translations, they’re a form of armchair travel, not to see the sights of other countries, but to enter the minds of their storytellers, to see things from another perspective or delight in discovering one similar one to our own. To break out and away from the narrow influence of the culture we are within. Most of what we are offered to read from traditional channels was imagined, created and published only in English, less than 5% of fiction originates from other languages.

It’s hard to only choose five especially as I’m going to refrain from choosing titles I have mentioned already in a list I made in August 2019 leading up to #WITMonth.  Do check out the list below, it contains some of all time favourites.

My Top 10 Books by Women in Translation in 2019

To put this into context, I have read approximately 180 books translated from other languages. In choosing the five listed below, I’m trying to be mindful of what I think people might enjoy during this time of isolation.

My Top Five Works of Translated Fiction

1. The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares tr. Margaret Jull Costa (Spain)

This was a fabulous read for me and one I’ve never forgotten and often recommended, it’s a quiet, short read, an elegy that evokes the end of an era, in this case one man living alone in a village in the Pyrenees long after everyone else has abandoned it. It might sound melancholic, but this is the nearest literature comes to being like staring at a painting and admiring the creation. Here’s what I said in my review (click on the title to read the whole review):

Written in the future, the past and the present, in a lyrical style that for me never depresses though we might think it bleak, this ode to a changing landscape that is reverting back to its true nature is haunting, gripping, colourful and soul destroying all at the same time.

2. Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira tr. Eric M.B. Becker (Brazil)

This is one of the more recent translations I’ve read, and one of the most accomplished, for it dares to tell a potted history of Brazil through interconnected stories of daughters, from 1500 to the modern age. They are grouped into five eras providing an insight into how easily humanity loses its connection to its  origins, thinking itself above the rest.

There are occasional traits that pass from one generation to another, in this line of women who range

from slaves to slave-owners, revolutionaries to idle society ladies, muses to artists, powerful matriarchs to powerless victims, Indians to respectable “white” women whose eyes would “light up in shock” if they found out about their indigenous (and African, and working class) ancestry. Enrico Cioni

3. Nothing But Dust by Sandra Colline tr. Alison Anderson (France)

Although it is a French novel, it’s set in the Patagonia steppe, Argentina, about four boys growing up in harsh conditions on a farm under the rule of a tyrannical mother. It’s one of those novels that makes you feel like you are there, willing the youngest son Raphael on as he is challenged by his two older brothers and harsh mother.

It evokes a strong sense of place whether that is the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau or the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest the youngest son encounters when he must track down two missing horses. 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.

4. The Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb (Iceland)

I remember reading this novella and the wonderful feeling it evoked as it was New Years Day in 2016 and my first read of the year. The story takes place on a ship in 1949, the narrator is a passenger and Caeneus, the second mate of the freighter, is a storyteller.

Each night he tells part of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC), so reading the book necessitated a number of welcome diversions to look up that story and an increasing awareness of the connection between what we are reading and that ancient myth. Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, I scribbled all over that book in pencil and had fun learning so much more than what was written between the pages.

5. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash (France)

Because I live in France, I probably read more French books (in translation or original language) than any other foreign language, despite reading from more than 20 countries annually, so it’s not surprising to find a second French title on my list.

Bonjour Tristesse is a slim, coming-of-age classic of Cecile, a 17 year-old girl on holiday with her father at a villa on the Meditarranean, near St Raphael. I loved it.

Jealous of her father’s intentions to remarry she behaves badly and then regrets it, at the same time expressing remarkable insight into her flaws and misgivings. She knows this marriage will turn her and her father into happy, civilised beings, yet she deeply resents it.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, I loved the ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked; not to mention this was written when the author was only 18 years old herself. I’m not usually a big fan of classics, but the French writers Françoise Sagan and Colette have me overcoming my usual reluctance.

Do you have an all time favourite read of translated fiction? Share in the comments below. I’m always looking to add other people’s favourites!

If you missed them, here are the rest in the series I’ve posted so far, more still to come!

Further Reading During Our Confinement

My Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

My Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being Reads

My Top 5 Nature Inspired Reads

My Top 5 Uplifting Fiction Reads

Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira (Brazil) tr. Eric.M.B. Becker

Just brilliant.

What a perfect way to navigate through 500 years of history of a country, without ever getting bogged down in the detail, to follow the lives of daughters, a matrilineal lineage, whose patterns are affected if not dictated by the context of the era within which they’ve lived.

An omniscient narrative begins with the daughter of a native tribeswoman, who leaves her village and family on the arm of a Portuguese ship hand, and moves to the many generations living on sugarcane plantations, to the era of daughters of wealthy business owners living off the profits of those ancestors; from the bitter to the sweet, the uncaring to the revolutionary, five centuries of women, interlaced through stories.

Each chapter follows one young woman and though some of their lives are short-lived, they at least give birth to one daughter, even if some don’t live to raise them. Though unlikely in reality that so many generations would all produce at least one daughter who survives long enough to reproduce, this construct provides the framework for telling the stories, weaving together the historical threads, allowing only us as readers to see what they often don’t, that they are, that we all connected if we look back far enough, or inside deep enough.

Translator Eric M. B. Becker, the winner of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation grant, produces an excellent translation. By leaving particularly Brazilian terms such as “emboaba” and “cafuzo” untranslated, Becker manages to make readers of English understand the untranslatable within its context. The novel maintains a casual, dreamlike quality, as if the narrator were telling these stories to a friend. Each character is given their own original voice, emotions, and musicality. If some syntax feels unexpected, it is almost always for the benefit of sound.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

Their stories are grouped into five parts:
A Shortlived Romance – Inaia (1500 – 1514) and her daughter Tebereté (1514 -1548)
Desolate Wilderness -six daughter descendants, the slave years (1531 – 1693)
Improbable Splendour – five daughters, the commercial trading years, accumulating wealth (1683 – 1822)
Vicious Modernity – four daughters, revenge, jealousy, naivety, the elite upper classes (1816 – 1906)
A Promising Sign – three daughters, working class, equality, human rights, exile, freedom (1926 – present)

There are so many stories, it is difficult to retain them all and remember them, and for this it’s necessary to slow-read this book to really take in the breadth of storytelling, which implicitly tells the greater story of a country’s evolution, growth, pain and development. But what better way than to inhabit the lives of one family and follow them over the course of time, recalling the fates of each character and the essence of the life they lived, was enabled or disabled by the time they lived through.

The narrator makes an appearance from time to time, like the hand that threads the needle, they are threadbare and unintrusive, like a pause in reading to make a cup of tea, they don’t disturb the reader, if anything we are comforted by the presence.

I absolutely loved it, I read this because I seek out works by women in translation to read in August for #WITMonth and finding a book like this is such a joy, for it gives so much in its reading, great storytelling, a potted history of Brazil, a unique multiple women’s perspective and an introduction to an award winning author, the writer of ten novels, this her first translated into English.

The variety of their personalities, and the pain, beauty, and strength they display shows that genetics alone does not make a person who they are. In this book, the characters’ environments form them, from the people with whom they interact to the great changes taking place in the pulsing heart of Brazil itself.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

I wrote most of this review back in August last year, and as you know, I wasn’t capable of sharing anything for some time after that. I passed the book on to a wonderful friend who came to be with me during that time, and for that reason too I’m unable to share any quotes.

It was one certainly of my favourite reads of 2019. A real gem.

Thank you to Enrico for his excellent review that made me get my own copy of the book to read. Read his review, it’s more of an incisive literary criticism that looks at the challenges of writing a novel like this and how Silveira overcomes them.

 

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi tr. Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies won the 2019 International Booker Prize, a literary prize open to newly translated works of fiction into English.

Jokha Alharthi is from Oman and her novel was originally written in Arabic. She is the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English and the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. The judges had this to say:

“It’s less flamboyant than some of the other books, there’s a kind of poetic cunning to it. It starts feeling like a domestic drama in a fascinating world, but with the layers of philosophy, psychology and poetry, you are drawn into the prose, through the relationship between the characters. It encouraged us to read in a slightly different way.”

It is a read that requires just letting go and going with the flow, allowing the characters to lead us wherever it is the author is taking us. I say that because it is a non-linear narrative, that moves its narrative perspective often from one character to another and also across time seemingly randomly, as events trigger memories and take the story back to their origin.

There is a family tree in the opening pages, which I did refer back to often, though perhaps it wasn’t really necessary, sometimes just knowing it is there is an excuse to refer to it, but it’s not really necessary for a story that follows no chronological order, that moves from the present to the past and back generations according to the feelings, thoughts and behaviours of its characters.

Abdullah’s thoughts occupy us more than most, and they often refer him back to a childhood memory, that turns into a recurring adult nightmare of being suspended by ropes in a well, a punishment for taking his father’s rifle to shoot magpies with the boys who lured him out to join them. Only they beat him.

He is married to Mayya, who he loves, since the first day he saw her – and because he was a man, he could have her as his wife. The feelings aren’t reciprocated and love doesn’t flourish there. Unbeknown to him there is another ‘celestial body’ orbiting in his universe that intends to reel him in.

For me, this felt like a novel that centred around the lives of those connected with ‘The Big House’ whether they were descendants of the one who built it, to contain his family, slaves, to be place friends could visit. For some it is a sort of prison, not necessarily the slaves, for they have certain freedoms not given to those who are part of the family, especially those who have no memory of being stolen.

It is useless, Zarifa, to try telling this man that no one stole you. That you were born a slave because your mother was a slave and that’s the way life is. That slavery passes to you from your mother. That no one stole you, and al-Awafi is your place, its people are yours.

Her husband remembers and shouts when she says such things.

The second child of his mother who had five boys in all, he remembers everything: the local gangs that attacked their village wanting money, or perhaps to pay old scores; the merchants, a jumble of Baluchs and Arabs, who bought them, there on the plains, the filthy crammed ships those merchants crammed them into; the eye disease that spread fast from one child to the next on shipboard; his mother’s screaming for her other children, who’d been shoved onto other boats; the nursing baby who died of smallpox while on her breast, so the slave traders snatched him away and threw him into the sea.

Her son also sees things differently:

He spoke through clenched teeth. Listen to me. Merchant Sulayman raised me and, yes, he put through me through a little schooling, and he found me a wife, but it was all for his own self-interest, all because he meant me to serve him, and to have my wife as his servant too, and then my children later on.

Even those who leave, (to Cairo), when tragedy strikes, in their upset they return to this small town of The Big House, forever connected to those who reside there.

At certain points in their domestic history, there are things that are changing in the external and international world, like the abolition of slavery, though those affected by it here, seem immune to the changes, their lives don’t change, they are not even aware of their rights. Change here happens slowly, in the rebelliousness of each new generation, challenging what came before in some way.

Time changes them, multiple generations must live together in understanding and be misunderstood. Some things are never understood and leave some always seeking the truth, to the point of obsession.

Do you see the way people move life – and I mean, just the bits of their lives you can see? Most of their movement through life is invisible, it goes on inside of them, so for us it exists beneath the surface. Their own private worlds, their imaginations. When I liberated myself from living through my father’s head I created my own imagination with a paintbrush.
.
My art saved me from acting out the image my father had made for me.
.
When I could finally shake myself loose, when I managed to no longer live inside the image of me he had in his head, I finally found out what freedom tastes like….How liberated a person feels when it’s finally no longer a question of being just an extension or embodiment of someone else’s fancy, even if that someone is your father.

It doesn’t follow a conventional plot and just as in life, the voices of the household come through chapters almost haphazardly, just as thoughts do, and yet over the span of 240 pages we have a sense of this extended family and community of the pressure of time moving on, of lives changing and challenging old perceptions.

As I look back at the book, I see so many passages highlighted and randomly opening to any of them I immediately see what it was that attracted me and understand why this book elevated itself above the rest, to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. There is a richness to it, a complete immersion, a gathering of influences, duty alongside rebelliousness, tradition nestled with change, love and loss, history and modernity.

International Booker Long List 2020

The International Booker Prize long list was announced today Feb 27. Thirteen novels of translated fiction from 8 languages, 11 countries, six male authors and seven women. The judges this year were looking for distinctive voices that stayed with them, fiction that once you’d read it, you couldn’t stop thinking about.

The prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators.  The contribution of both author and translator is given equal recognition, with the £50,000 prize split between them.

Ted Hodgkinson, Chair of Judges said:

‘What a thrill to share a longlist of such breadth and brilliance, reflecting a cumulative artistry rooted in dialogue between authors and translators, and possessing a power to enlarge the scope of lives encountered on the page, from the epic to the everyday. Whether reimagining foundational myths, envisioning dystopias of disquieting potency, or simply setting the world ablaze with the precision of their perceptions, these are books that left indelible impressions on us as judges. In times that increasingly ask us to take sides, these works of art transcend moral certainties and narrowing identities, restoring a sense of the wonderment at the expansive and ambiguous lot of humanity.’

Below are the novels on the list with a short summary of their premise. Surprisingly, I have read and reviewed two (reviews linked below) and they are indeed thought provoking novels, and I have The Adventures of China Iron on my shelf to read. The shortlist will be announced on April 2nd.

The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran) Translated by Anonymous from Farsi

Set in Iran in the decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this moving, richly imagined novel is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a 13-year-old girl whose family is compelled to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village, hoping in this way to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives. They soon find themselves caught up in the post-revolutionary chaos that sweeps across the country, a madness that affects both living and dead, old and young.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree speaks of the power of imagination when confronted with cruelty, and of our human need to make sense of the world through the ritual of storytelling. Through her unforgettable characters and glittering magical realist style, Azar weaves a timely and timeless story that juxtaposes the beauty of an ancient, vibrant culture with the brutality of an oppressive political regime.

The Memory Police  by Yoko Ogowa (Japan) Translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese

Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?
The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, from one of Japan’s greatest writers.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina)Translated by Iona Macintyre & Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish

1872. The pampas of Argentina. China is a young woman eking out an existence in a remote gaucho encampment. After her no-good husband is conscripted into the army, China bolts
for freedom, setting off on a wagon journey through the pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a settler from Scotland. 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 the ruthless violence involved in nation-building.
This subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic, Martín Fierro, is a celebration of the colour and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom. With humour and sophistication, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara has created a joyful, hallucinatory novel that is also an incisive critique of national origin myths and of the casualties of ruthless progress.

Red Dog by Willem Anker (South Africa) Translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans

In the 18th century, a giant bestrides the border of the Cape Colony frontier. Coenraad de Buys is a legend, a polygamist, a swindler and a big talker; a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British; the fierce patriarch of a sprawling mixed-race family with a veritable tribe of followers; a savage enemy and a loyal ally. Like the wild dogs who are always at his heels, he roams the shifting landscape of southern Africa, hungry and spoiling for a fight.
Red Dog is a brilliant, fiercely powerful novel – a wild, epic tale of Africa in a time before boundaries between cultures and peoples were fixed.

The Other Name: Septology I – II byJon Fosse (Norway) Translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian

Follows the lives of two men living close to each other on the west coast of Norway. The year is coming to a close and Asle, an ageing painter and widower, is reminiscing about his life. He lives alone, his only friends being his neighbour, Åsleik, a bachelor and traditional Norwegian fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in Bjørgvin, a couple hours’ drive south of Dylgja, where he lives. There, in Bjørgvin, is another Asle, also a painter. He and the narrator are doppelgangers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life. Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not another? With The Other Name, the first volume in a trilogy of novels, Fosse presents us with an indelible and poignant exploration of the human condition that will endure as his masterpiece.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Georgia) Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German

At the start of the 20th century, on the edge of the Russian empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste…
Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband Simon to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. But Stasia’s will be the first of a symphony of grand, if all too often doomed, romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.
Tumbling down the years, and across vast expanses of longing and loss, generation after generation of this compelling family hears echoes and sees reflections. Great characters and greater relationships come and go and come again; the world shakes, and shakes some more, and the reader rejoices to have found at last one of those glorious old books in which you can live and learn, be lost and found, and make indelible new friends.

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (France) Translated by Shaun Whiteside from French

Dissatisfied and discontented, Florent-Claude Labrouste feels he is dying of sadness. His young girlfriend hates him and his career as an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture is pretty much over. His only relief comes in the form of a pill – white, oval, small. Recently released for public consumption, Captorix is a new brand of anti-depressant which works by altering the brain’s release of serotonin.
Armed with this new drug, Labrouste decides to abandon his life in Paris and return to the Normandy countryside where he used to work promoting regional cheeses, and where he had once been in love. But instead of happiness, he finds a rural community devastated by globalisation and European agricultural policies, and local farmers longing, like Labrouste himself, for an impossible return to what they remember as the golden age.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Austria-Germany) Translated by Ross Benjamin from German

He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!
In a village like every other village in Germany, a scrawny boy balances on a rope between two trees. He’s practising. He practises by the mill, by the blacksmiths; he practises in the forest at night, where the Cold Woman whispers and goblins roam. When he comes out, he will never be the same. Tyll will escape the ordinary villages. In the mines he will defy death. On the battlefield he will run faster than cannonballs. In the courts he will trick the heads of state. As a travelling entertainer, his journey will take him across the land and into the heart of a never-ending war. A prince’s doomed acceptance of the Bohemian throne has European armies lurching brutally for dominion and now the Winter King casts a sunless pall. Between the quests of fat counts, witch-hunters and scheming queens, Tyll dances his mocking fugue; exposing the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools.
With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) Translated by Sophie Hughes from Spanish

Hurricane Season opens with the macabre discovery of a decomposing body in a small waterway on the outskirts of La Matosa, a village in rural Mexico. It soon becomes apparent that the body is that of the local witch, who is both feared by the men and relied upon by the women, helping them with love charms and illegal abortions.
Mirroring the structure of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the novel goes back in time, recounting the events which led to La Matosa’s witch’s murder from several perspectives. Hurricane Season quickly transcends its detective story constraints: the culprits are named early on in the narrative, shifting the question to why rather than who. Through the stories of Luismi, Norma, Brando and Munra, Fernanda Melchor paints a portrait of lives governed by poverty and violence, machismo and misogyny, superstition and prejudice. Written with a brutal lyricism that is as affecting as it is enthralling, Hurricane Season, Melchor’s first novel to appear in English, is a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (France) Translated by Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins from French

Meetings, partings, loves and losses in rural France are dissected with compassion.
The late wedding guest isn’t your cousin but a drunken chancer. The driver who gives you a lift isn’t going anywhere but off the road. Snow settles on your car in summer and the sequins found between the pages of a borrowed novel will make your fortune. Pagano’s stories weave together the mad, the mysterious and the dispossessed of a rural French community with honesty and humour. A superb, cumulative collection from a unique French voice.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish

They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Sierra Leone, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana.
They’re not pets, nor ghosts, nor robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without you knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, untraceable.
The characters in Samanta Schweblin’s wildly imaginative new novel, Little Eyes, reveal the beauty of connection between far-flung souls – but they also expose the ugly truth of our increasingly linked world. Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters and marvellous adventures, but what if it can also pave the way for unimaginable terror? Schweblin has created a dark and complex world that is both familiar but also strangely unsettling, because it’s our present and we’re living it – we just don’t know it yet.

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (The Netherlands) Translated by Michele Hutchison from Dutch

Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter’s day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.
A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison’s striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty.

Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas (Spain) Translated by Margaret Jull Costa & Sophie Hughes from Spanish

Mac is not writing a novel. He is writing a diary, which no one will ever read. At over 60, and recently unemployed, Mac is a beginner, a novice, an apprentice – delighted by the themes of repetition and falsification, and humbly armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.
Mac’s wife, Carmen, thinks he is simply wasting his time and in danger of sliding further into depression and idleness. But Mac persists, diligently recording his daily walks through the neighbourhood. It is the hottest summer Barcelona has seen in over a century.
Soon, despite his best intentions (not to write a novel), Mac begins to notice that life is exhibiting strange literary overtones and imitating fragments of plot. As he sizzles in the heatwave, he becomes ever more immersed in literature – a literature haunted by death, but alive with the sheer pleasure of writing.

 

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa tr. Stephen Snyder

From an extraordinary writer and storyteller who defies categorisation, another tale that stretches and flexes the readers imagination, hauntingly written, leaving me to wonder just how she does it, a thought I had after reading her novel, or story collection Revenge in 2013.

The Memory Police are an oppressive, bureaucratic menace slowly making things on the island disappear along with all memories of them in the minds of inhabitants. And they enforce forgetfulness. Checking up on people to be sure memory has been erased, because though for most the memories disappear without effort, in some they linger. Those whose memory somehow stays intact live in danger, they begin to disappear, go in to hiding or are forcefully removed.

Our unnamed narrator has lost both her parents, taken by the police and no longer heard of; though her mother tried to preserve and hide some of the things that disappeared through her art. The daughter is a novelist, as long as words, imagination and voice exist she continues to write. She accepts her fate and continues to adapt to each disappearance with the help of an old man she is close to and the company of the neighbour’s dog, when its owners are removed.

Her editor R goes into hiding due to his ability to remember and tries to instill in her the importance and value of memories, while sometimes a memory returns, for her, it no longer has emotional significance or meaning. She possesses empathy but is void of nostalgia, without the objects the memories disappear and even when one reappears, it no longer evokes any emotion or feeling.

Gathering photographs (when they become the next thing to disappear) and albums to burn, R makes a desperate effort to stop her:

“Photographs are precious. If you burn them, there’s no getting them back. You mustn’t do this. Absolutely not.”
“But what can I do? The time has come for them to disappear,” I told him.
“They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

It’s a dystopian novel that focuses more on the survival of the citizens than on exploring the tyranny that oppresses them, the Memory Police don’t seem to be afflicted with “forgetting” and we don’t understand what motivates them. Is it an allegory of collective degeneration, or an attempt to make the reader understand something that is universal among the aged? Suffering seems to rest with those to retain memory, those who forget adapt, and forget that they have forgotten.

There doesn’t seem to be any purpose, merely an exploration of those aspects of humanity of the oppressed to survive and care for one another, whether that means putting one’s life at risk to hide someone who does retain memories, to seek out old memories at the risk of being caught, caring for an old man and a dog.

Some things are innate to humanity and no matter what afflicts us, we are endlessly adaptable, continuing to find ways to work around and/or accept obstacles, here presented in a somewhat absurd manner, highlighting our inability to fight against adaptability. We have no choice but to adapt, it’s written into our genes, and this regime has somehow managed to find a way to control and rewrite them.

Alongside what is happening on the island’s (sur)real world, our protagonist writes a novel about a woman taking typing lessons from a man who will put her in a tower, these chapters are interspersed throughout the narrative and provide an alternative, thought-provoking aspect to the wider story.

When novels disappear and hers remains unfinished despite numerous attempts to write at the request of R, and a loss of inspiration, the old man asks her if it’s possible to write about something in a novel if you’ve never experienced it.

“I suppose it is. Even if you haven’t seen or heard about something, it seems you can just imagine it and then write it down? It doesn’t have to be exactly like the real thing; it’s apparently all right to make things up or even lie.”

“That’s right. Apparently no one blames you for lying in a novel. You can make up the story out of nothing, starting from zero. You write about something you can’t see as though you can see it. You make something that doesn’t exist just by using words. That’s why R says we shouldn’t give up, even if our memories disappear.”

Each disappearance activates the reader’s imagination and the novel provokes many questions that make this an interesting one to discuss.

It’s a novel that stayed with me long after reading, wondering what it was getting at; just as you think you’ve found some deeper meaner, it kind of gets erased, there are no easy conclusions…it’s like the advent of short term memory loss, a literary version of mild cognitive impairment, an affliction all humans post middle age experience and one this novel makes you experience what that might be like in reading. Astonishing.

Further Reading

The Guardian: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa review – profound allegory of loss by Madeleine Thien

NY Times Article: How “The Memory Police” makes you See  by Jia Tolentino

Thanks to an email from Peirene Press this morning sharing news of the long list nomination of their novella Faces On the Tip of My Tongue by the French author Emmanuelle Pagano, I see that both The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar have also been nominated for the International Booker 2020.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

In yesterday’s post I mentioned I had just finished reading this book, a wonderful, if challenging work of translated fiction by the Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, who lives in exile in Australia. This novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018 (a literary award that celebrates Australian women’s writing and an organisation promoting cultural change).

I was very quickly pulled into this book and for the most part seamlessly travelled between the realistic part of the story and parts where the author shifted into the character’s imagination.

Azar uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling to tell the story of a family of five in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the story is narrated by the spirit of the 13 year old daughter. When fire takes their daughter and much that have till then valued, the family flees Tehran in search of a place as far away as possible from conflict and interference, making their home on a hill above the sleepy village of Razan.

One day Beeta tells Bahar: ‘When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality to liven it up?’

The story shifts between the quiet lulls where it appears they have realised such a utopia and flights of the imagination, where we are temporarily protected from exposure to the harshness and brutality of reality, just as this family attempts to do to preserve their way of life and life itself.

Azar says she wrote the story, in an attempt to answer this question:

Can we survive without passion and hope in a religious dictatorial system?

By letting go of the need to have all of the story narrated in the realistic voice, we hang loosely onto the storyline and then detach, like a kite being given more length of string, flying high above, sometimes so high we no longer recognise where we are, before being pulled back to ground.

I managed to stay with the narrative until Beeta’s metamorphosis around page 178, where I felt my mind spinning, trying to stay with it, wondering what was happening. I almost felt defeated, and then arrived that wonderful moment of clarification, when without giving anything away, the father is forced by the dictatorship to write a statement, and as readers we are given insight into the reality we have been protected from and how the imagination has carried us through it. And though we might question what was real and what wasn’t, it no longer matters, because we have been made to understand why.  As if the universe is making a point here, this realisation ironically appears on page 222.

Dad wrote everything again. This time he cut out all the parts he had realized were incomprehensible to their stale minds, and embellished here and there to make it thoroughly believable.

This made me very curious to understand more about the Persian style of storytelling, whether this was the author’s imagination or something that was inherent in the culture she came from. And this is one of the reasons I love reading translated fiction, because of the gift of this kind of insight into another culture’s storytelling and way of thinking, how they cope with the often harsh reality of life.

Asked in an interview with the LARB (LA Review of Books) about her use of magical realism, Azar said:

Magical realism comes from an old or ancient deep-seated insight. It is more than a literary style that you can learn at university or from the books. I did not learn it only by reading magic realism modern fictions, but I also learned from mythic texts, Persian classic texts, and my own people’s culture. People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meanings in these beliefs.

I highlighted many passages, too numerous to include, but leave you with this one:

Persian Greengage Plum Tree

I looked at the eyes of the ghosts sitting around the fire and at Beeta, and suddenly I realized that we dead are the sorrowful part of life, while the living are the joyful side of death. And yet, Beeta was not joyful and it was the sad side of life that she didn’t even know she should be joyful in life because there was nothing else she could do. I wanted to tell her this, but was afraid of bringing her damaged spirit down even further. Fortunately, she herself eventually spoke and said, “It seems that from among you, I am the more fortunate because nobody killed me. But I don’t feel happy at all.”

She looked at we who had died. The dead who had been the first to meet her in the world of the living outside Razan. An old man in the group responded, “This is because you don’t yet realize how beautiful, young, and healthy you are.” Beeta smiled and her cheeks reddened by the light of the fire in silent emotion; and all of us who were dead saw how good the smile looked on her. But as she recalled dark memories, her smile faded and she said, “But the man who loved me simply turned his back on me and married a young girl.” The middle-aged man said, “All the better! It means you were lovable enough but he wasn’t smart enough to realize it.”

This is one of those books that demands perseverance, for which we are warmly rewarded when we do so. I am pleased to read that she is at work on a second novel in a similar style asking the question:

Can true love exist in a religious dictatorship in which the body and love are censored? When you are not allowed to love your body and mind, can you truly be in love with another’s body and mind?

Further Reading:

Deep Into the Heart: An Interview With Shokoofeh Azar by Robert Wood, LARB

The Stella Interview: where she discusses the experiences that informed the novel, the writers that inspire her work and how writing is a means of resistance

Thank you to Daniela at Europa Editions for sending me a review copy.