Masks by Fumiko Enchi tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter #WITMonth

MasksA mysterious novella that begins in a quiet humble way as we meet the young widow Yasuko whose husband, the only son of Meiko Togano, we learn died tragically in an avalanche.

Yasuko has stayed close to her mother-in-law who in the early chapters seems like a peripheral character, however as the story ventures further, it is suspected that she may be manipulating events and that this is not the first time in her life she has done so.

“A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge – an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation”

Yasuko is ready to move on with her life and the two men who are in love with her become part of a triangle of deception, where the motives take some time to become clear.

Mieko is a poet and an essay she wrote called ‘The Shrine in the Fields‘, resurfaces, intriguing the two men. The shrine is a reference to a location in the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji that is mentioned in connection with tone of the characters in that novel the Rokujo lady.

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secret.”

Tale of GenjiIt is worth knowing a little about the plot of The Tale of Genji and the ‘Masks of Noh’ from the dramatic plays, as we realise there are likely to be references and connections to what is unfolding here. And not surprising given Fumiko Enchi translated this 1,000+ page novel into modern Japanese.

It may be that Masks, is an allegory to one or more chapters of The Tale of Genji, and in particular in relation to the story of the Rokujo lady, something that made me remember reading Sjon’s The Whispering Muse which did a similar thing with the Greek poet, Apollonius of Rhodes, and his epic poem The Argonautica.

Masks is an enchanting read, that begins as a straightforward narrative and becomes an intriguing multi-layered tapestry of long held deceptions and narcissistic conspiracies that will haunt the lives of these characters.

An intriguing, thought-provoking read, that expands our horizons, introducing us as it does, to classic works and theatre from the long Japanese literary culture.

Fumiko EnchiFumiko Enchi was a Tokyo born novelist and playright, the daughter of a distinguished philologist and linguist. Poorly as a child, she was home-schooled in English, French and Chinese literature by private tutors.

Her paternal grandmother introduced her to the Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji, as well as gesaku novels,  kabuki and bunraku theatre. Her  adolescent reading included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.

Much of her work explores female psychology and sexuality, while three of her works have been influenced by The Tales of Genji, – Masks, The Waiting Years and The Tale of An Enchantress.

Buy a Copy of Masks via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

Click to Buy The Bridge of Beyond via Book Depository

(Affiliate Link)

WIT logo

The Bones of Grace (Bangladesh #3) by Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace can easily be read as a standalone novel, however its central character Zubaida Haque, is the third generation of the family we met in her earlier novels.  

A Golden Age was set mostly in 1971 during the Bangladesh War of Independence when the territory split from West Pakistan and was seen from the perspective of  Rehana, widow and mother of Maya and Sohail, actively involved in the events that transpired during that time.

The Good Muslim was set in the years directly after independence and the impact on the family, seen mostly from Maya’s perspective.

In the Bones of Grace, life is lived far from the effects of war, by a generation looking for meaning in less noble and more personal pursuits. Zubaida is educated abroad and more interested in the fossils of the Ambulocetus ‘walking whale’ and the implications on evolutionary belief than the politics of her own country. She is unsure – but follows it anyway – of the path leading her towards marrying her long-term boyfriend, whom her family approve of, after a brief encounter with Elijah, a man she met at a classical concert in Cambridge.

Bones GraceThe novel is predominantly a second person narrative addressed to Elijah, long after she has lost him, narrating the events of their meeting, her pursuit of the dinosaur fossils straight after meeting him, her return to Dhaka and then her escape from her family to Chittagong, to work alongside a female film-maker interviewing workers on the ship graveyards, beaches where enormous liners are dismantled and parts recycled.

The narrative also gives voice to Anwar, a man she meets in Chittagong who in narrating to the two women the events of his life that brought him there, reveals a connection to Zubaida’s past, a history that haunts her and perhaps goes someway towards explaining her confused behaviour.

It is a novel of profound and often neurotic reflections, as we only ever hear Zubaida’s version of events, in a lament to her lost lover, whom we don’t spend enough time with to sympathise or consider what his perspective might have been, her address to him might well be actually to herself, for its purposes appears more to be an attempt to find and understand herself, requiring her to be far from everyone to do so.

It’s a worthy follow-up to the first two novels, written in quite a different style, which demonstrates the growth and confidence of the writer. I read the three books back to back and enjoyed them all, though I would say that the first novel was the more powerful, perhaps not surprising as it was inspired in part by many of the events lived through by Anam’s grandmother.

I reviewed this book for BookBrowse,  if you click on the link you can read their latest reviews.

Click to Buy a Copy of The Bones of Grace via Book Depository

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen tr. John Irons #WITMonth

This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.

Mieke Ziervogel, Peirene Press

Looking Glass SistersTwo sisters have lived in the same house all their lives, their parents long gone and they can barely tolerate each other. They are bound together in one sense due to the practical disability of the younger sister, but also through the inherent sense of duty and responsibility of the first-born.

At times like these, in the dark, maybe with a candle lit, a sudden, intense feeling overcomes me that Ragna and I are one body, completely inseparable. We have gradually let go of parts of ourselves in favour of the other. Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism. Ragna has the body and I have the soul. She puts on the firewood, I do the thinking. She makes the tea, I read and write.

They manage with their hostile acceptance of each other until the new neighbour Johan begins to visit and competes for the attention of the able, caring, repressed Ragna, a potential disruptive threat to her invalid sister and to the way things in their household have been for a long time.

Days and weeks go by, I glide into a soothing rhythm of calm everydayness. It is an illusion, I know that, for beneath the dependable surface conspiracies smoulder, along with my sister’s hot-tempered desire for her own life.

Narrated from the perspective of the crippled sister in a stream of consciousness style, its intense, frustrating and laced with a sense of foreboding as the third character, Johan, arrives and either in her imagination or in reality – we are never quite sure – convinces the sister to make plans to change their circumstances.

Can it be that I, the sick one, have given rise to impatience in Ragna because of my exaggerated gestures and unreasonable demands? Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Claustrophobic, at times surreal, it fits perfectly with the Peirene Press Close Encounters theme, which comprised the three novellas below.

Chance Encounter Series

Peirene Press publish three books a year in a themed series. Their 6th series ‘Chance Encounters’ comprised three books that explored different aspects of interpersonal relationships and the importance of the Other in our development as individuals and our understanding of ourselves.

The Door by Magda Szabó tr. Len Rix #WITMonth

The DoorThe Door is an overwrought, neurotic narrative by “the lady writer”, (possibly Szabó’s alter-ego, as there are similarities) describing her 20 year relationship with Emerence, the older lady who interviews her prospective employer to see if she’ll consider accepting the cleaning job on offer.

The writer and her husband have recently had a ban on publication lifted from them (for political reasons) and anticipate requiring help around the house as they get back to work. Despite having little respect for intellectuals and only for those who do manual work, in her own time Emerence decides to accept them.

No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn.

Are they dependent on one another or do they despise each other? Is Emerence an altruistic soul, or a cunning manipulator? Is the lady writer narcissistic or consumed with guilt pursuing her idle occupation while the older woman takes on more and more work?

I stood there gazing after her, wondering why she still stuck with me when I was so very different from her. I had no idea what she liked about me. I said earlier that I still rather young,  and I hadn’t thought it through, how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current. And yet I was well versed in Greek literature,  which portrayed nothing but  the passions: death and love and friendship, their hands joined together around a glittering axe.

The entire novel hovers with each event between opposing emotional states as they appear to get the measure of the other only for the behaviour to completely change. Emerence will do anything and everything for everyone, she is loved by all, but has never opened the door to her home to a soul, her charges make it to her porch and no further. No one knows anything about her private life and she shuts down anyone who dares to pry.

Dressmakers ribcageLater, only very much later, in one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced, I wandered amidst the ruin of Emerence’s life, and discovered, there in her garden, standing on the lawn, the faceless dressmaker’s dummy designed for my mother’s exquisite figure. Just before they sprinkled it with petrol and set fire to it, I caught sight of Emerence’s ikonstasis. We were all there, pinned to the fabric over the dolls’ ribcage: the Grossman family, my husband, Viola, the Lieutenant Colonel, the nephew, the baker, the lawyer’s son, and herself, the young Emerence, with radiant golden hair, in her maid’s uniform and little crested cap, holding a baby in her arms.

Seen through the prism of the writer, we observe Emerence only through her eyes, often confused, sometimes suspicious, frequently neurotic. She bears the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator.

It is a slow developing relationship and narrative that entwines these two women’s lives together, creating a delicate trust, the implications of which lead to its tragic denouement.

It’s a compelling, unsettling read, there is a sense of foreboding as the protagonist often jumps forward and provides brief glimpses as to what is coming, building tension and the sense of some kind of catastrophic event or revelation that awaits them all.

Magda SzabóMagda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary, her father a member of the City Council, and her mother a teacher.

In 1949 she was awarded the prestigious Hungarian literary Baumgarten Prize, given to “Hungarian authors with serious endeavour whether in literature or in science who are exempt of any religious, racial or social prejudices and serve only ideal aims…”

The prize was withdrawn from her for political reasons the same day it was awarded. She was dismissed from her job at the Ministry and during the establishment of Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956, the government did not allow her works to be published.

In 2003, the French translation of ‘The Door’ won France’s Prix Femina Étranger.

She died in 2007, at the age of ninety and was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. The ‘Door’ however, was translated in more than 40 languages and published in 64 countries.

Reading Women Writers in Translation

This is my third read in August for #WITMonth, reading Women in Translation.  Have you read anything by Magda Szabó?

Further Reading

New Yorker Article, April 29, 2016 – The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door” by Cynthia Zarin

Guardian Review – Labours of love, A thinly veiled self-portrait emerges from Magda Szabó’s The Door by Elena Seymenliyska

Buy a copy of Magda Szabó’s The Door via Book Depository

The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

WIT logo

The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba tr.Polly McLean #WITMonth

Laura Alcoba was born in Argentina in 1968 and has lived in Paris since she was 10 years old, when she fled Argentina during the period in the country’s history referred to as The Dirty War. Her father had been imprisoned and her mother had already fled the country, a wanted woman.

It was an era where military, security forces and right-wing death squads hunted down and killed left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, anyone believed to be associated with socialism. Many that were targeted were from the church, labour unions, artists, intellectuals and university students and professors were targeted.

Pregnant women had their babies taken from them and then disappeared, many of these children were raised by military families, some of them today still have no idea of their origins, a few fortunate to be reaquainted with siblings or other family thanks to the tireless efforts of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. More than 400 children are believed to have been taken from political prisoners in Argentina during that era and the efforts of the grandmothers have reunited around 120 so far.

The Rabbit HouseIn The Rabbit House, Laura rarely refers to the political situation that forced them to live in hiding, resulting in her having to change her name and be extra careful about how she engaged with others, for it is written from the perspective of her 7-year-old self, exactly as she recalls the events and changes that occurred in their lives at the time, with little understanding of the cause of this sudden change.

After her father is imprisoned, Laura and her mother go into hiding in a house in the suburbs, they live with a young couple, the woman Diana was pregnant with her first child.

During the day, “the labourer” and “the engineer” arrive to build a rabbit house, a place where they are going to breed rabbits, a cover for the job to create an underground space in which to house a printing press, to print and distribute a banned publication.

This is because we are doing some work on the shed so we can keep rabbits in there. These visible sacks justify – we hope – the endless comings and goings of the grey van. In this way we flaunt the busyness and waste materials appropriate to a modest rabbit breeding project. But behind the rabbit breeding area is concealed a whole other building site, huge, on another scale entirely – because the house we live in was chosen to hide the secret Montonera printing press.

Though there are things Laura has been told she can and can’t do, this precarious life and it’s rules aren’t well enough defined to help her with every situation, some of which she recounts here, creating the acute tension under which she lived, terrified of doing something wrong and endangering all their lives.

EvitaMontoneraThe only people in the house are Diana, seven months pregnant, my mother behind the false back wall, and me.

Oh, and the rabbits. And the rolls of wrapping paper and ribbon. and the secret printing press and hundreds of copies of a banned newspaper. And also the weapons, for self-defence.

And the ferocious kitten.

We are very afraid.

A visit with her paternal grandparents to see her father in prison is organised in a clandestine manner, and is so traumatising she is physically sick and it is decided not to take the risk again, her fear clearly outweighing any benefit in seeing her father.

I was reminded of Marcelo Figueras’s book Kamchatka which I read in 2015, a novel also written from a childs’ perspective, set in 1976. Figueras uses the novel form to inspire his storytelling, clearly drawing from his own memory and experiences of that same era.

The writing and narrating of Laura’s story is simplistic yet intense, she effectively portrays the sense of unease and desire of the child to not create trouble, but not knowing quite how, when the situations are complex and unknown,  she is destabilised by the visible fear of the grown-ups, demonstrated in how quickly they anger when they fear she may have crossed a forbidden threshold.

First read for me in #WITMonth 2016 – Reading Women in Translation.

KamcahtkaFurther Reading

My review of Marcelo Figueras Kamchatka

Argentina – The Dirty War

Operation Condor conspiracy faces day of judgment in Argentina court

Madres of the Plaza de Mayo – Grandmothers of the Disappeared

How an Argentinian man learned his ‘father’ may have killed his real parents – Guardian 22 June 2016

******

Click here to Buy a copy of The Rabbit House via Book Depository