Women in Translation 2018 Summary #WITMonth

During August I was back in reading mode after a busy period, so here is a brief impression of the books I read for Women in Translation month, an annual reading challenge I participate in as it fits appropriately with the kind of books I like to discover, those coming from countries and cultures other than Anglo, originally written in another language.

The reason they are highlighted in August is an attempt to raise awareness of the very narrow choice we give ourselves by only reading books in English, or from one’s own country and to highlight the fact that even when we do read outside our first language, the majority of books published, promoted and reviewed are written by men.

WIT Month is an attempt to redress the balance, and the hope is that publishers also respond by making more of an effort to seek books from voices that are little seen in print.

So this was my stack of possibles, there were eight books to choose from, I read six of them and I’m still reading the seventh (being back in another busy period, it may take a while to finish).

I read three books translated from French, one from German, one from Arabic (Egypt), one from Turkish and the one I didn’t read Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (I have read and enjoyed her novel The Door) was originally written in Hungarian.

Here are the summaries below, click on the title to read the full review:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal      🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Wow, this was a novel like other, translated from the French, embracing long descriptive, metaphoric passages, as it navigates 24 hours in the life of a young surfer, through snapshots of all he comes into contact with, or those whose lives will be affected by what has just happened to him. It is unique, original, dramatic, insightful, gut-wrenching at times and stays with you for a long time after, due to its thought-provoking subject.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s father had a heart attack, putting the writing on hold  sent her thoughts to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck     🌟🌟🌟

One I’ve tried to read over the years, but never got past the first few pages, this time I succeeded, though wasn’t wowed by it. A German novel focusing on a property by a lake, which we are reminded in the opening pages has been there for millions of years, since the glacial age.

The chapters that follow highlight aspects of the lives of a few human dwellers over a period of about one hundred years, shadowed by the tumultuous history of a landscape and the psyche of those who’ve tried to live in and control it.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

I’m no sentimentalist, but when this one abruptly finished, a little salt water leaked from my eyes, witnessed by my 15-year-old son, staring at me in disbelief. It’s brilliant.

A woman sits in a Paris fertility clinic and spends the entire book giving up little updates on what that is all about, while she reflects on her childhood and upbringing in Iran, the lives of her parents, her gender confusion, her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives, the blue-eyed gene they all carry, the political activism of her parents, which would send them across the Kurdish mountains to exile in France via Turkey.

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat      🌟🌟🌟🌟

A unique and riveting view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her.

It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived and judged by her peers, family and society, causing her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when she really wants to express herself or explode. Which path will she choose?

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.” Sherif Abdel Samad

Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain      🌟🌟🌟🌟

Another light-hearted novella from one of my favourite French authors for humorous literature, this time he makes a parody of the newly introduced smoking laws, shining a hazy light on the reactions of some members of French society to the law and their efforts to avoid cooperating with it.

One man in particular seeks out a hypnotherapist and then wishes to undo the effect. It’s a laugh-out-loud entertaining read that will delight fans of The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü       🌟🌟🌟

It reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to understand through what she has left behind.

It’s a theme I’ve noticed recently, the lack of understanding from only knowing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.

The story is told in the shadow of a period of Turkish history that traverses the Ottoman period to the Republic and beyond, across three generations of women. A little disjointed with the change in narrative perspective,  but a thought-provoking and informative read.

“The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.”

Hannah’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson

Another story of three generations of women, this time in Sweden and how the environment and attitudes of their community affected the way they dealt with life’s challenges as perceived by their daughters.

Here, a grand-daughter looks back and tries to understand her grandmother, digging into questions never previously asked, ( now demanding of her dying mother) wondering what had been behind the mask this fearful woman presented and how that might have affected her own mother, set against a history of people living on the border of Sweden and Norway from the late 1800’s until to the present.

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

And finally the book I am reading now, the author’s debut novel, an autobiographical, philosophical novel on the human condition, said to have been written as an act of revenge against the women who came between the author and her long time partner Jean-Paul Satre.

The novel’s main character, Françoise, is based on de Beauvoir, and Pierre a thinly disguised Sartre. A younger woman, Xaviere, enters their lives as they form a ménage a trois. Xaviere is a mash-up of sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz.

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Have you read any good novels by women in translation recently? Or any of the above?

Do any of those above interest you?

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Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson tr. Joan Tate #WITMonth

In its original language the title was Anna, Hannah och Johanna. The title in English is misleading, as I read Hanna’s story and she continued to have one boy after the other, I wondered when she was going to have time to have those daughters, until I realised it was a generational reference.

Hanna has one daughter, Johanna, a name that carries its own story and past, before she is even born, one of the reasons she is closer to her father in her early years. Johanna would also have one daughter Anna, it is she who begins to narrate this story, she visits her mother in hospital, desperate to get answers to questions she has left it too late to ask.

She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.

Anna knows she is being demanding like a child, willing her mother to understand and respond, reprimanded by the care staff for upsetting her, for although she can’t respond, she remains vulnerable to the joys and anxieties of those around her and powerless to prevent the dreams that carry her each night back to the world of her childhood, that place her daughter is now desperately trying to access.

Anna finds an old photograph of her grandmother Hanna and recognises similarities she’s not been aware of, she remembers her briefly and recalls asking her mother:

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

The discovery of the photo and the recognition it awakens in Anna gets her thinking about the lives of all the women in her family, that by tracing the past and understanding the circumstances and decisions they had to make, she might better be able to navigate her own life, rather than blaming the relationship she is in for her misery.

The narrative then shifts back to Hanna’s childhood, born in 1871, she was the eldest of a second group of children born, the first four died in the famine of the 1860’s.

What the mother learned from the previous deaths was never to get fond of the new child. And to fear dirt and bad air.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Hanna and her life and this is where the novel is at its best, immersed in the struggle of Hanna’s early years, its tragic turning point and the situation she is forced to accept as a result. Circumstances that will become buried deep, that nevertheless leave their impression on how she is in the world and impact those daughters indirectly.

It is also in this section we learn how difficult life was for so many families on the border region between Norway and Sweden and the political discontent that existed at the time. People who had lived together peacefully, intermarried and seemed to be as one, as republican issues arose, discrimination added another layer to the challenges in their lives and became another reason for people to move on.

The mid-section comes back to reveal more of her grand-daughter Anna’s adult life, charmed by a man with womanizing tendencies, but of a generation that refuses to accept an unbearable situation, one where women are able to be financially independent and greater decision makers, though not necessarily fulfilled or happy with their lives.

Naturally I thought it was love driving me into Donald’s arms. In my generation, we were obsessed with a longing for a grand passion. Hanna, you would’ve understood nothing whatsoever about love of that kind. In your day, love hadn’t penetrated from the upper classes to the depths of peasantry.

Finally we learn more about Johanna’s life with her husband Arne, the good fortune that eventually came into her life, the trials that would follow, of a different nature than her mother’s, though not so far from her grandmother’s.

The second half of the book was less memorable, possibly because Hanna’s story created such a strong sense of place and life in that era was full of dramatic events which underpinned the development of all the characters around her. When the family moves to Gothenburg, to the city and its ways, when the automobile arrives and travels shortens distances, when life became modern, it tended to become more uniform, less distinct.

Marianne Fredriksson

Marianne Fredriksson in the opening pages of the novel reflects on something she learned at school, when Bible studies were still part of the curriculum, that the sins of the fathers are inflicted on children into the third and fourth generations. She felt that was terribly unjust, primitive and ridiculous, growing up, the first generation to be raised to be ‘independent’, those who were to take destiny into their own hands.

Then as knowledge developed and understanding of the importance of our social and psychological inheritance grew, those words began to acquire new meaning, and though there were none that spoke about the actions of mothers, here she found it to have more meaning.

We inherit patterns, behaviour and ways of reacting to a much greater extent than we like to admit. It has not been easy to adapt to; so much has been ‘forgotten’, disappearing into the subconscious when grandparents left farms and countryside where the family had lived for generations.

She goes on to say that ancient patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, who have daughters… and that perhaps here too we might find some

explanation for why women have found it so difficult to stick up for themselves and make use of the rights an equal society has to offer.

It’s a book that considers the forces that influence us and asks what might have shaped us more, our personal and/or family history or the generation to which we belong. It gives us a little insight into the way of life and historical challenges of another part of the world.

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The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü tr. Elizabeth Maslen #WITMonth

One of the best things about August’s WIT Month (reading literature by women in translation) is the abundance of reviews that come out, that will often be my source of prospective purchases for the year ahead, as there is no better time where there is such a proliferation of titles being discussed.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü is one of those books I came across in a blog post I read in 2017, a post entitled Contemporary Turkish Writers Available in English Translation by Roberta Micallef.

Have you read any novels or books by Turkish women? I was thinking about that as I read these opening words:

Turkish literature is a rich, creative, wonderful treasure trove that is well worth exploring. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share works by extraordinary contemporary Turkish women authors whose works have been translated into English.

I visited Istanbul in 2013 (see my post Ottoman Distractions) and was excited to visit a local bookshop and get some books by local writers, it’s true I had already read quite a few books by Orhan Pamuk and while in Turkey I read his excellent, if somewhat melancholic work,  Istanbul, Memories of a City and I have read quite a few novels by Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour, Three Daughters of Eve and her thought provoking non-fiction essay, The Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity.

Topkapi Palace Library

But what was everyone else in Turkey reading, what other woman writers were writing stories, telling their history’s? Turkey has such a rich culture and history, straddling both the European and Asian continents, its families with strands often reaching back to geographies they’ve had to flee, a gateway between worlds.

The bookshop owner pushed two books into my hands, the classic Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga and an archeological mystery Patasana by Ahmet Ümit. But no books by women authors.

Erendiz Atasü’s novel reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to ameliorate that through what she has left behind. It’s a theme I’ve noticed often recently, the lack of understanding that comes from only knowing or observing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.

Vicdan and her friend Nefise have won state scholarships to university in Cambridge, England. They’ve won them on merit and they are excited by the opportunity presented. They are also part of a political strategy which the author shares when sharing some of the inspiration for the novel, her mother was a recipient of such a scholarship in 1929:

The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.

The girls travel together, taking the boat to Marseille, travelling up to England, later they will holiday in Berlin, a visit that leaves dark impressions, they read in other languages, they mix with young people from many cultures. Nefise is at first tempted to cross lines Vicdan is resolutely against. Vicdan stays strong and true to her intention of gaining her education and returning to Turkey to benefit her country. She recalls the struggles of childhood, her family fleeing their home in the Balkans, her father called on to participate in the first world war, her brothers sent away, the prejudices of others if your accent wasn’t right, or your birthplace.

Nefise receives a proposal of marriage, the young man doesn’t understand her rejection of him:

‘I am a Republican,’ Nefise had said, ‘and you are an army officer serving an Empire.  We have nothing in common.’

Ted had been shaken; he found politics unsavoury. However, while an honourable officer might not be interested in politics, he would not hesitate to die for his King and country if necessary.

‘What country?’ Nefise had said, ‘Is India your country?’

While the narrative begins with girls going off to England, it chops and changes in perspective, telling the story of Vicdan’s family and how events changed their circumstances and destiny, the death of the father, the remarriage of the mother, her brother’s Reha and Burhan sent away to a military academy chosen by their stepfather before the wedding ceremony (a fact Burhan never forgave), their childhood over, while another would begin with the subsequent arrival of a younger half-brother, never truly accepted by his older brothers.

Reading Area in the Palace Library, Istanbul

As the narrative changes perspectives, it is interspersed with the thoughts of the various characters, demonstrating the different attitudes, resentments, all the many things never said, that build a picture of the impact of historical events on a family and the ties that bind them together, no matter what happens.

With this characteristic of writing, it can become both insightful and confusing, insightful as we are taken inside the mind and letters of a character and confusing as we skip back and forth across time.

As the author says, her interest is in:

‘the essence of things that happen,  the reasons for them and the results, the impact they have on individual psyches, the impressions on inner selves, have always been the issues of paramount importance to my mind.’

and on three people whose influence on her heart mind resonate throughout the book:

‘Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose being supplied the sap which has sustained my country’s life; that major poet Nazim Hikmet; and the major writer Virginia Woolf, whose work has drawn me closer to the writer hidden in me’

It was an interesting read for me and I enjoyed the blend of history and perspective and how it impacted the lives of characters throughout the novel. The author captures the influences,  and penetrates the minds of her characters and so begin to understand what they can not, how each generation if formed by their experiences and their hopes are placed in those who inspire them in their youth, but these things are not experienced in the same way as the years pass by, one who was venerated yesterday can become hated by the youth of tomorrow.

I did find the sequence it was written confusing at times, but that didn’t really distract from the overall impression, which was the diversity of backgrounds lived through and that aspiration to build a bridge between different parts of the world and their people and the importance literature has in contributing to that.

 

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat tr. Marilyn Booth #WITMonth

I’m glad The Open Door was brought back into publication, it was a landmark work in woman’s writing in Arabic when it was first published in 1960, an important commentary on the challenges women and girls in so many societies face, a consequence of patriarchy; an effect that is being busted wide open today, forcing transparency, offering support, healing and with hope, gradual change in many countries today. It seems timely to revisit this, or to read it for the first time, as will likely be the case for many.

As Sherif Abdel Samad said in the introduction to his article linked below:

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.”

The Open Door provides its unique view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of both the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her. It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived, judged, which in their course cause her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when really she wants to be able to express herself or explode.

It’s a novel about Layla, her brother Mahmoud, their friends, parents and the Aunt and cousins living upstairs, all of whom have differing opinions and ways of dealing with life, their beliefs on how it should be lived and how one should behave, that make it a riveting read and insight into the debates this novel provoked at the time it was first published.

The Film starring Faten Hamama

Here is Layla’s mother reprimanding her for being outspoken and speaking her mind:

‘How could you say those ridiculous things to Samia Hanim?’

‘I just said what came to mind, and that’s that!’

‘What came to mind? If everyone said whatever was on their the mind, the world would have gone up in flames long ago.’

‘Or whatever they feel – that’s what they should say.’

‘Whatever they feel! That’s for your own private self, not for saying in front of people.’

‘So people should just lie, you mean?’

‘That’s not lying – that’s being courteous. One has to make people feel good. Flatter them.’

‘Even when you don’t like them?’

‘Even when you don’t like them.’

In addition to the turmoil Layla goes through, the advance and retreat, so too does Egypt confront her own coming of age, with the advance of independence from British rule, the inner rebellion against the monarchy and the final agitation that brought about the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

While it’s not an overly politically involved novel, the history of the nation over a ten year period, deftly matches the progress of the young woman as she tries to forge a path for herself, realising how tied to social codes she is, both complies and considers busting out of those expectations, to live life more on her own terms. Her dilemma is adeptly encapsulated in the quote below:

On this solid foundation she stood, after her experience with Isam, and within the bounds of those rules. There she existed, fortifying herself against life, so fearful; and suppressing all the well-springs of spontaneity and lively inquisitiveness that were in her nature. She faced life with a cold face and a colder heart, with chilled feelings, with a studied behaviour the consequences of which she always knew in advance. She constructed a shell of emotional serenity from her certainty that she was acting correctly, that she was perfectly self-sufficient, and that no one could harm her or cause her pain.

Then Husayn passed through her existence and a vibrant current touched her, setting off the sort of animated reactions that anyone who followed the rules and was clever at reckoning consequences would hardly dream of. Layla paused on the bank, observing life’s current as it pushed forward, and something in her heart rebelled. Something was willing her to join the current. Yet something in her mind pulled her back, enveloped her to imprison her on shore. And there she remained.

The men in her life symbolise different models of those options, and they too make choices that will have far reaching consequences, whether they meet societal expectations or choose a path true to their hearts. It can seem simplistic as a reader to see the preferred path, but the reality of lives and the strong influence of parents to raise the family status, often sees young people used as pawns in their determination. This adds to the novel’s intrigue, there is an undercurrent of concern on the part of the reader for Layla’s future welfare, making the book compelling reading, for she doesn’t make decisions the way one might expect.

The final section sees Layla not exactly make her own decisions, but find a way to at least explore her thoughts and desires without the oppression of others opinions, it coincides with a period of war, adding to the perceived danger, now the challenge is survival and participation in the struggle offers her a way through the chaos.

The ending felt a little rushed, and was less coherent as a whole than the rest of the book, it made me wonder if the author had trouble bringing the novel to its conclusion, although that chaotic feeling it generated could also be said to fit with the events that were happening at the time, which were in disarray and dangerous.

Overall, I thought it was excellent, engaging and thought-provoking, particularly by putting a young woman and her confusion in the act of becoming a woman at the centre and demonstrating through the other women, her family and friends around her, the pressures that disrupt that development, that question it, mould it and can sometimes even destroy it.

I hope it gets more widely read and discussed, particularly given the continued struggle that exists everywhere today and to get an inside view from within another culture, to see and understand the universality of these themes.

Latifa Al-Zayyat

Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was an Egyptian writer and political activist born in Damyat. She was a professor of English literature and criticism at the Girls’ College at Ain Shams University from 1952 until her death.

She was Director of the Arts Academy and a member of the Supreme Council for Arts and Humanities, publishing many works on politics, literary criticism, as well as novels, short stories, memoir, and drama. She was also an activist and imprisoned more than once for her intellectual and political stance, her criticism of society and desire to break down taboos. Her literary legacy is important in light of the tireless campaigning she was so active in, that in part perhaps paved the way for those following in her footsteps.

About her novel, she had this to say:

“in the novel, I aimed at crystallizing three levels of significance. The first one deals with the development of the female protagonist, and its related to the second which deals with developments in Egypt at that period. As for the third level, it incorporates a commentary on the values of the middle class and its practices and how they prevent the country from a take off.”

It has been an inspiration for a large number of women who seek to challenge the status quo for women in the Arab world and achieve change. Her novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and she was awarded an International Award of Recognition in Literature in 1996 shortly before death that same year.

Further Reading

Review: Literary Gems – Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door  by Ismail Fayed

Al Jadid Article: Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat By Amal Amireh

Article on the 20th Anniversary of her Death: Dauntless to the End by Sherif Abdel Samad

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The Open Door

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Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover #WITMonth

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could end my review right there, those were the words I tweeted not long after I finished Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental while I was still in the moment of coming to the end of an excellent story of an immersive experience I wasn’t ready to be done with. It was a five star read for me, but I’ll share a little more of the experience to help you decide if it’s for you or not.

The novel is a dual narrative, set in the present and the past, where the protagonist – who for some time is nameless, with little said to explain how she came to be here – is sitting in a fertility clinic, waiting for her appointment. This immediately creates questions in the reader’s mind, as it is made clear there is something unusual about the situation, that she is taking a risk to even be there. This contemporary narrative, slowly builds the picture of who she is and the  circumstance she is in.

This interminable waiting creates an opening for her to reflect and remember, thus interspersed between what takes place in the present, is the story of her family, a long line of Sadr’s, beginning with her parents Sara and Darius, forced to flee Iran, who came to France when she and her two sisters were of school age.

The narrating of family stories, taking us back as far as her great-grandfather Montazemolmolk with his harem of 52 wives, serves to provide context and an explanation for why certain family members might have behaved or lived in the way they did, helping us understand their motives and actions.

The daughter Nour, born with unusual piercing blue eyes, her mother dying in childbirth, the man obsessed with making her his wife, her reluctance to go out being the object of unwanted attention, her children who desire to be free of restriction, the reading of the coffee cups, predicting the sex of the child of a pregnant woman; Uncle Number Two and his secret.

Darius, the timid elder son, sent to Cairo to study law, abandons his studies and pursues a doctorate in Philosophy at the Sorbonne. Eventually he returns to the family, changed by his studies and experiences and though quiet in person, wields a mighty sword through his journalistic pen and letters to a political regime he detests and chooses not to ignore.

It is a story that spans a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, one that travels through highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual is free to express their opinion and brings no harm, they continue to live within their culture, family and be an active part of their community and society. But when freedom of expression becomes a danger to the individual, the sacrifices that are made stifle and silence them, but don’t always make them safe. Life in exile, without the connections to friends, family, neighbours, reduces these adults to shadows of their former beings, unable to truly be themselves in a foreign culture.

I highlighted so many great passages in reading, but I’ve already passed the book on to someone else to read, so can not share them here yet. It is a reminder of another era, of people who had rich, cultural and intellectual lives, of families who fled persecution, not because of war, but because of their intellectual and philosophical activism and of how much is lost, when a new generation grows up within a culture no longer connected to their past, to their heritage and worse, in a country that has been subject to the propaganda of the media, and perceptions of that culture are tainted by the agenda of politicians and parties, and what they wish their populations to believe about foreign cultures.

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

It is as if she had a crystal ball to look back through the years, through lives she hadn’t personally experienced and discovered events from the past that created an aspect of who she was and would in turn, be passed on and live deep within the yet unborn child she desires to conceive.

Highly Recommended.

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Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck tr. Susan Bernofsky #WITMonth

I’ve attempted to read Visitation about four times and never succeeded in getting past the first few chapters, but this year I persevered as I felt I hadn’t given it a fair chance.

Now that I’ve finished it, I realise I held unrealistic expectations when I first came across it. I bought my hardcover version in Daunt Books in Marylebone on a visit to London in 2010, I was aware of it after having read a review in the Guardian, this was in the early days when I was newly discovering works by writers in translation.

Jenny Erpenbeck was being hailed as “the rising star of the German literary scene” and her work described as “one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing.” I wanted to discover what that meant, to read it and feel it. Naive. I wasn’t yet able to discern in the little explored world of translations, which voices I would lean towards and appreciate, or to value my reading perceptions.

I began this book a few times and the striking and original wasn’t happening. I shouldn’t have read those blurbs, I should have read it without any expectation and then moved on to her next books, which have gone on to develop a wider audience, won prizes and further established her as that which that was predicted.

Visitation is a veiled narrative that shows a little of the lives of a few people who lived alongside a lake that was formed about thirteen thousand years, whose origins might be traced back to a glacier from twenty-four thousand years ago. Beginning the book with this geological origin reminds us of our insignificance and the inevitability of change and transformation.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

The first chapter is entitled ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’ and tells of the local mayor, who comes from a long line of men, all who have been Mayor of the village, the chapter tells of many traditions, rituals and superstitions, of what is meant to be, to happen, to the point of extreme ridiculousness, as if thousands of years of rituals have piled up on top of one another, awaiting the seismic event that will topple them all. Because he has only procured girls, the inevitable is indeed waiting to happen, for there will be no new Mayor from his family and change is coming to Brandenburg. History as we know is about to impact this family and others, people are going to have to leave and strangers are going to arrive.

When they returned to Germany, it was a long time she and her husband could bring themselves to shake hands with people they didn’t know. They had felt a virtually physical revulsion when faced with all these people who had willingly remained behind.

In between the chapters with titles encompassing their time there, like ‘The Architect’, the Architect’s Wife’, ‘the Red Army Officer’, ‘the Subtenants’, ‘the Girl’, ‘the Writer’, ‘the Visitor’, ‘the Childhood Friend’, are the chapters of ‘The Gardener’, the one closest to nature, the one consistent thread that exists throughout all the others, as the others succumb to the effects of the era in history they embrace – pre-war(s) to post war Germany, is the man with no name, who looks after everything, but who is a cycle of nature himself, so that by the end, as his (in)ability changes, so too do others that come in have to either take up his responsibilities or allow things to fall into neglect.

Laced with melancholy, it offers snippets of lives of those who dwell(ed) near this lake, wood, village – the compromises, the passing of seasons, the building, destroying of things, relationships – why strangers are both spurned and revered and always The Gardener, the one who tends, who observes, who slowly wilts, forcing others to adapt.

While I appreciate what it attempts to do, I didn’t find the novel engaging, that melancholy combined with the veiled effect, of keeping the reader at a distance from the characters, of only seeing so much, instilled in it for me, a kind a quiet dread, a feeling drained of hope, as if there was no escape from a dire inevitability, no matter what it was. The psyche of the era it was set in perhaps; if so, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of a country, its people and the spectre of its past.

 

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal #WITMonth

Although I’ve read reviews and seen this book appear often over the last year, and knew I really wanted to read it, I couldn’t remember what is was about or why.

It was down to a consistent feeling and feedback from readers whose views I respect, their brief tweets of encouragement igniting the flame of motivation that made me choose this as the first #WIT (Women in Translation) novel I’d read in August 2018. Yes, it is WIT Month again, now in its 5th year!

So how to describe this remarkable novel?

There’s a clue in the two versions of the English translations, (the American and British English versions have different titles and different translators). The novel was originally written in French and ironically one of the characters, a 50-year-old woman awaiting a heart transplant in a Parisian hospital, is also a translator.

The American translation (by Sam Taylor) is entitled The Heart and it is indeed a story that follows the heart of a 19-year-old youth from the moment his alarm clock rings at 5.50 a.m one morning, an hour he rarely awakes, as he sets off with two friends on a surfing mission during a rare mid-winter half-tide; over the next 24 hours until his body is meticulously prepared to be laid to rest.

He lets out a whoop as he takes his first ride, and for a period of time he touches a state of grace – its horizontal vertigo, he’s neck and neck with the world, and as though issued from it, taken into its flow – space swallows him, crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood; the wave unfolds on a blurred timeline, slow or fast it’s impossible to tell, it suspends each second one by one until it finishes pulverised, an organic, senseless mess and it’s incredible but after having been battered by pebbles in the froth at the end, Simon Limbeau turns to go straight back out again.

The British translation (by Jessica Moore) is entitled Mend the Living, broader in scope, it references the many who lie with compromised organs, who dwell in a twilight zone of half-lived lives, waiting to see if their match will come up, knowing when it does, it will likely be a sudden opportunity, to receive a healthy heart, liver, or kidney from a donor, taken violently from life.

It could also refer to those who facilitate the complex conversations and interventions, those with empathy and sensitivity who broach the subject to parents not yet able to comprehend, let alone accept what is passing – to those with proficiency, who possess a singular ambition to attain perfection in their chosen field, harvesting and transplanting organs.

Maylis de Kerangal writes snapshots of scenes that pass on this one day, entering briefly into the personal lives of those who have some kind of involvement in the event and everything that transpires connected to it, in the day that follows.

It’s like the writer wields a camera, zooming in on the context of the life of each person; the parents, separated, who will be brought together, the girlfriend confused by a long silence, the nurse waiting for a text message from last nights tryst, the female intern following in the family tradition, the Doctor who she will shadow removing thoughts of the violent passion of the woman he abandoned when his pager went off, and the one who bookends the process who listens to the questions and requests, who respects the concerns of the living and the dead, the one who sings and is heard.

Within the hospital, the I.C.U. is a separate space that takes in tangential lives, opaque comas, deaths foretold – it houses those bodies situated exactly at the point between life and death. A domain of hallways and rooms where suspense holds sway.

The translator Jessica Moore refers to her task in translating the authors work, as ‘grappling with Maylis’s labyrinthe phrases’, which can feel like what it must be like to be an amateur surfer facing the wave, trying and trying again, to find the one that fits, the wave and the rider, the words and the translator. She gives up trying to turn what the author meant into suitable phrases and leaves interpretation to the future, potential reader, us.

It is an extraordinary novel in its intricate penetration and portrayal of medical procedure, it’s obsession with language, with extending its own vocabulary, its length of phrase, as if we are riding a wave of words, of long sentences strung out across a shoreline, that end with a dumping in the shallows.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s own father had a heart attack, which put the writing on hold and sent her thinking to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

A deserving winner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, a prize that rewards books that illuminate the human experience through its interaction with health, medicine and illness, literature engaging with science and medical themes, the book has also been made into a successful film and two stage productions.

Highly Recommended.

Interview with Maylis de KerangalWhat is a Heart? by Claire Armistead