Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

I came across Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup not long after reading the Sri Lankan author Nayomi Munaweera’s excellent second novel, What Lies Between Us which was published earlier this year and when I read her comment below on the novel, I was even more interested. Coincidentally, I’d been following Radhika Swarup on twitter and soon after seeing her book  around, she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading it.

‘A heartbreaking story … on a chapter of South Asian history that has often been deemed too painful to be explored fully.’
Nayomi Munaweera, Author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

River PartsIt is 1947, in the province of Punjab, which sits between India and Pakistan, an area where Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and others live side by side. Tension is mounting as political events cause rifts between friends and neighbours as many of the Muslim population support the area becoming part of Pakistan and many Hindu fear for their lives, while the same tensions exist among Muslims living in the predominantly Hindu parts of India.

They are all living on the cusp of Pakistan’s creation and the brutal partition of the two countries, which will split Punjab in two, the west becoming Pakistan, the east India, triggering the largest mass migration of humanity in history, affecting 10 million people.

Asha and Nargis are neighbours and best friends, they go to school together and spend time in each others homes, sharing their excitement at the future, especially as they are close to marriageable age and they know it’s something their parents are considering on their behalf. After he walks her to school for a week, Asha slowly becomes close to Nargis brother Firoze, a relationship that was unlikely to be accepted by their families even without the changes that Partition is threatening to bring.

‘Punjab has been set alight,’ he said at length. ‘It’s burning with a call for freedom, with a call for Partition.’

‘A call you favour.’

‘There’s no room for Muslims in a  free India.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘It is,’ he said firmly.

Partition 1947The thing they all fear most, that some desire most happens and Asha’s family leave their past behind and head for Delhi. Firoze helps them to escape and Asha leaves with a secret she has kept from everyone, the future unknown.

‘Suddenly those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatist and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed.’

We follow the life of Asha and all that happens to her, the sacrifices she makes, the effect of the secrets she holds and watches as the family she raises and lives among move far from the childhood and attitudes she has known. She makes peace with what has happened and accepts her new life, until 50 years later, when old memories resurface as she visits her daughter and grand-daughter in New York, who are in conflict as Asha’s Indian grand-daughter has fallen in love with Hussain, a young Muslim originally from Pakistan.

One of the most touching scenes in the novel, one that must have encapsulated the thought processes of so many, was when a grandmother from Pakistan asks Asha about Delhi because she too had been severed from her roots. That and the frequent, evocative references to the way she would make tea or other subtle habits that retained within them, the essence of where she had come from – representing those seemingly insignificant things people miss, that when they encounter again, provide immense nostalgic pleasure. Radhik Swarup evokes these memory inducing touches without sentimentalising, we sense it at a primal level, as those who have ever left home for an extended period will recognise.

‘But I want you to tell me about India. I want you to tell me what changed in Delhi after I left.’

‘It’s changed. There are new shops, new roads, new names.’ She saw the woman’s face fall, and she leaned forward, taking her hands in her own. ‘But in spirit it remains the same. It’s still a village at heart; noisy and intrusive. There are still the narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.’ The woman closed her eyes, considered Asha’s words, and a slow smile spread on her face. ‘In that case’, she said, ‘all is well.’

An often heart-breaking story of the impossibilities of love to survive political and religious differences and events, the way it changes lives, how people cope and the deep compassion required if it is ever to be overcome.

Author, Radhika Swarup

Author, Radhika Swarup

Radhika Swarup is an Indian author based in London, whose family was displaced by the Partition, having had to leave Pakistan and move to India, so the events and their repercussions are ‘engraved on our psyche’ .

Where The River Parts is her debut novel.

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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.

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s second novel The Shipping News (1993) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction. Her short story Brokeback Mountain from the collection Close Range was made into a powerful film, directed by Ang Lee.

She is now 80 years old and has just published the novel Barkskins, a historical family saga that follows the descendants of two Frenchmen who arrive in the King’s newly claimed territory of New France (an area that today is made up of parts of Canada, the US and two islands that remain under French control).

BarkskinsProulx hasn’t published a novel since 2002 and has spent the last ten years researching, studying, writing about and travelling to visit trees and forests of the world. Her novel has at its heart, the theme of deforestation and uses the two families to illustrate her thinking, that there is no greater protector or more harmonious dweller of a lands natural resources than those who are native to the area.

One of the characters Rene Sel, marries a native Indian woman, the other Charles Duquet, marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate and from then on their destinies and the generations that follow, will navigate different paths, one family struggling to survive and to retain their identity and ways, the other creating a family empire, intent on finding a renewable resource to ensure the business continues to grow and expand.

Again Duquet saw the great weakness of the trade – surplus or scarcity. Beaver might disappear from over trapping or disease or for no discernible reason. Or the Indians took too many. He now regarded tales of immense profits in the fur trade as fables. He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings. He was surprised to discover in himself a wish for children, a wish to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.

Rene and his children learn from his Mi’kmaq wife, their mother Mari, who was a repository of answers to their many questions, for her people had ‘examined the world with boundless imagination for many generations’ already.

Over the months and years he learned from her. His relationship to Mari became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies. They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad.

Parts of the novel are riveting and in particular, Proulx inhabits in an engaging manner, the characters of Charles Duquet and one of his descendants Lavinia Duke, who becomes the head of the family empire and is as ruthless as the men who became before her. It is she who Proulx sends to New Zealand in search of the enchanted kauri forests.

Yes. They have trees. Especially do they have certain ‘kauri’ trees, which experts describe as the most perfect trees on the earth, truly enormous trees that rise high with all the branches clustered conveniently at the top. The wood of these trees is without blemish, light, odourless, of a delightful golden colour, easy to carve and work, strong and long-wearing.

However, at just over 700 pages and spanning 300 years and multiple generations, it is a challenge to keep the characters in mind and as a result some make more of an impression than others, which both quickens and inevitably often slows the pace of reading, a necessary compromise perhaps when illustrating such a significant era of history through the narrative form of fiction.

It is a book of a writer’s indulgence, this is Proulx doing what pleases her; a trained historian spending her time indulging a subject that fascinates and rouses her interest which is also a major concern to her. Her book is a wake-up call, even if its lessons sadly, have been learned much too late.

“Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” Annie Proulx – The Observer, 5 June 2016

I reviewed this book for Bookbrowse and also wrote an article Beyond the Book on the territory of New France, where it is currently Editor’s Pick and available to read by clicking on the link below:

Read Claire’s Review and Article at Bookbrowse

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

 

 

A Golden Age (Bangladesh #1) by Tahmima Anam

A Golden AgeDear Husband,
I lost our children today.

What an opening line. Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age plunges you right into the twin events that form the basis of Rehana’s character as a parent, fiercely protective and determined to have them near her.

Dear Husband,
Our children are no longer our children.

The death of her husband and her fight to keep her children, when her dead husband’s brother and his childless wife claim they could take better care of them.

The first chapter begins with that day in 1959 when the court gives custody to her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Lahore, (West Pakistan) over 1000 miles and an expensive flight away from Dhaka (East Pakistan).

The novel then jumps forward and is set in 1971, in Dhaka, the year of its war of independence, when East separated from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh (when you look at the area on a map, they are geographically separate, with no common border, India lies between them).

East West Pakistan 1971

In 1971, Rehana’s children, Maya and Sohail are university students and back living with their mother after she discovered a way of becoming financially independent without having to remarry. Despite her efforts to protect them, she is unable to stop them becoming involved in the events of the revolution, her son joining a guerrilla group of freedom fighters and her daughter leaving for Calcutta to write press releases and work in nearby refugee camps.

He’ll never make a good husband, she heard Mrs Chowdhury say. Too much politics.

The comment had stung because it was probably true. Lately the children had little time for anything but the struggle. It had started when Sohail entered the university. Ever since ’48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. The Dhaka university students had been involved in the protests from the very beginning, so it was no surprise Sohail had got caught up, Maya too. Even Rehana could see the logic: what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, posed on either side of India like a pair of horns?

Rather than lose her children again, Rehana supports them and their cause, finding herself on the opposite side of a conflict to her disapproving family who live in West Pakistan.

As she recited the pickle recipe to herself, Rehana wondered what her sisters would make of her at this very moment. Guerillas at Shona. Sewing kathas on the rooftop. Her daughter at rifle practice. The thought of their shocked faces made her want to laugh.She imagined the letter she would write. Dear sisters, she would say. Our countries are at war; yours and mine. We are on different sides now. I am making pickles for the war effort. You see how much I belong here and not to you.

Anam follows the lives of one family and their close neighbours, illustrating how the historical events of that year affected people and changed them. It is loosely based on a similar story told to the author by her grandmother who had been a young widow for ten years already, when the war arrived.

When I first sat down to write A Golden Age, I imagined a war novel on an epic scale. I imagined battle scenes, political rallies, and the grand sweep of history. But after having interviewed more than a hundred survivors of the Bangladesh War for Independence, I realised it was the very small details that always stayed in my mind- the guerilla fighters who exchanged shirts before they went into battle, the women who sewed their best silk saris into blankets for the refugees. I realised I wanted to write a novel about how ordinary people are transformed by war, and once I discovered this, I turned to the story of my maternal grandmother, Mushela Islam, and how she became a revolutionary.

It’s a fabulous and compelling novel of a family disrupted by war, thrown into the dangers of standing up for what they believe is right, influenced by love, betrayed by jealousies and of a young generation’s desire to be part of the establishment of independence for the country they love.

It is also the first novel in the Bangladesh trilogy, the story continues in the books I will be reading next The Good Muslim and the recently published The Bones of Grace.

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but grew up in Paris, Bangkok and New York. She earned a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway in London. A Golden Age won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and was the first of a planned trilogy she hoped would teach people about her native country and the vicious power of war.

In 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young writers and her follow-up novel The Good Muslim was nominated for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler tr. Charlotte Collins

A Whole LifeDumped with an uncaring relative after his mother dies of consumption Andreas Eggers connects with the mountain more than with the family that barely tolerate him and when he is strong enough to resist the thrashings, will leave and make his own way as a labourer eventually earning sufficient to buy a plot of land up the mountain where he can build a cabin.

He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four-years-old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread.

A Whole Life is a melancholic yet soothing narrative of days and events that affect the life of Eggers, few of its turning points are initiated by himself – only when it becomes a matter of survival or principal. He is somewhat at the mercy of the mountain, the elements and whatever it is that confronts him. It is a gentle, unassuming novella of an unremarkable life, touchingly evocative yet unsentimental, a tribute to small wonders that make up a relatively uneventful life.

His early life stems from the moment of being left in the place of the family, his later life from having carried a dying man down the mountain, causing him to stop in at the inn, where the briefest touch of a woman becomes the catalyst for the next significant turning point in his life.

‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with the fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.
All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again; that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.

Apart from a brief period at war and a longer spell as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, his life is spent living off and around the mountain, a landscape he is at one with, in awe and wary of. It is all that he knows.

Seethaler describes Eggers, his life and environment in thoughtful, elegiac prose creating a man as much in harmony with his surroundings as is possible. He stands for those who observe change and the approach of the modern world from a distance, who accept who they are and where they have been placed and have only the occasional fleeting desire to move, but will do so when it is necessary.

He thought of the fact that, apart from trips to the Bitterman & Sons cable cars and chair lifts in the surrounding area, he had only left the neighbourhood on one single occasion: to go to war. He thought about how once, along this very road, back then little more than a deeply rutted track across the fields, he had come to the valley for the first time on the box of a horse-drawn carriage. And at that moment he was overcome with a longing so searing and profound he thought his heart would melt. Without looking back he got up and ran.

I loved this book, it reminded me a little of Julio Llamazares set in the Spanish Pyrenees The Yellow Rain, another novella with a strong connection to the village/environment, a kind of wistful resistance, imploring the reader to understand what it means to be human and so strongly connected to a place.

No surprise this novella became a bestseller in Germany and Austria and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, we are fortunate to have had it translated so beautifully by Charlotte Collins into English.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.

Robert SeethalerBorn in Vienna, Austria, Robert Seethaler is an actor (most recently in Paulo Sorrentino’s Youth) and writer, he grew up in Germany and now lives in Berlin.  A Whole Life is his fifth novel and the first to be translated into English.

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator, and has also translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

Further Links: 

Irish Times ReviewOne man endures, one day at a time by Eileen Battersby

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A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

Layout 1A woman working in an asylum centre as a translator is called to fill in for an interview. She utters the word she has all but banished from her vocabulary. Yes.

Now she faces the man with the voice she recognises, the man who snapped his fingers and changed her life, in their country, all those years ago.

One last interview with an asylum seeker who’s a bit of a problem, said my interlocutor, who was not anyone I knew. He went on, It’s a Colonel from the Theological Republic. But – I read your file. “Refuses to do any simultaneous translation for military or government personnel from her country of origin.”

Fariba Hachtroudi’s novella (translated from French) is a dual narrative, switching between two characters as they experience the present and remember the past in flashbacks, a kind of first person stream-of-conscious prose that is tense and withholding, though ultimately revealing.

We know bad things have happened, but no one wishes to relive or explain them, their thoughts rarely go there and yet we feel the presence of the past that hangs over them and the danger in the present. They both live with fear, paranoia and suffer from separation, from the memory and pain of love. They seek answers, atonement and their brief meeting will move them closer to it.

Now the Colonel is one of the hunted. He has been reinstated as a citizen. We have become full-fledged compatriots.  But what about the past? Can you just erase it with a swipe of your hand? And that pool of putrefaction that he waded into, without blinking an eyelid? The stench of it?

They live in isolation and with the memory of a great love and yet they have this terrible connection, which they must move beyond if they are to benefit each other. Can one overcome the memory of torture, the victim and the perpetrator and establish some other understanding?

Torture, like love, destroys, distorts, and transforms. Indubitably. Love, like torture, alters bodies. From the precipices of torment. Both love and torture mortify the soul deep in one’s inner chaos. Where the self disintegrates.

It’s a book that would benefit from being read twice as the narrative isn’t chronological, the characters and their loved ones are revealed slowly so thoughts shared in the beginning without reader knowledge add more to the story if we flip back and reread them.

Though a short novella, it requires concentration and acceptance that the threads will become clear, even while things are unclear, there is a mounting tension and discomfort that is hard to articulate, but is testament to the profound, tightly woven writing style of the author, this her first translation into English.

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi was born in Tehran, leaving Iran after the 1979 revolution and settling in France. She spent 2 years in Sri Lanka teaching and researching Theravada Buddhism.

An account of her return to Iran after 30 years in exile was the subject of a memoir The Twelfth Iman’s a Woman? Following that visit she set up MoHa, a humanitarian foundation that advocates for women’s rights, education and secularism.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing a copy of this novel.

Human Acts by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith

Han Kang AuthorHuman Acts is the author Han Kang’s attempt to make some kind of peace with the knowledge and images of the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980.

Her family had left that city just one year before, she was 10 years old when the 10 day uprising occurred, but she became aware of it through the overheard, whispered conversations of her family and the silence that surrounded them speaking of the home where they used to live. She learned three young people from that household had lost their lives, one, a boy Dong-Ho probably shared the same room she had lived in for many more years than the short time he had.

What made the events sear into her mind and perhaps permanently affect her psyche, was the forbidden photo book that was given to her family, books circulated secretly to let survivors know what had really happened, a book her parents tried to hide, one she sought out, opening its covers to images she would forever be haunted by.

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

Asked why she felt motivated to write this book – which begins with the immediate after-effects of the massacre, the very real logistical management of the bodies, the bereaved, mass memorial rituals and the burials and goes on to enter the after death consciousness of one the victims, seeing things from outside his body – she responded that the experience of seeing those images left her scared, afraid of human cruelty, struggling to embrace human beings.

It left her with the two internal questions below, they became her motivation to enter into the experience and try to write her way out of it, spurred on by the events surrounding the 1980 massacre in her birthplace of Gwangju and then the more recent social cleansing that took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009:

1. How can human beings be so violent?
2. How could people do something against extreme violence?

Human ActsHuman Acts, which seems to me to be an interesting play on words, is divided into six chapters (or Acts), each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and using a variety of narrative voices.

The opening chapter entitled The Boy, 1980 introduces us to Dong-Ho, but seen from outside himself, written in the second person singular narrative voice ‘You’. It is after the initial violence in the square and something has driven this boy, initially searching for the body of his friend who he witnessed being shot on the first day, to volunteer and help out, confronting him in a visceral way with so much more death and tragedy than he had escaped from on the day itself.

We meet the shadow of his friend in the second chapter, as he exits his body, but is unable to escape it, he tries to understand what is happening around him and observes his shattered body and others as they arrive, until something happens that will release him whereupon he senses the death of those close to him, his friend and his sister.

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?

Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles at the edge of the candle flame?

In another chapter, we learn one of the volunteers from the first chapter is an editor, we meet her again five years later in a short, violent episode, that is revealed in the seven days of healing that follow. Devastatingly brilliant, it delves into the cost of censorship and the risk of being anywhere near it.

She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.

The following chapters skip years, but never the prolonged effect of what happened, the events never leave those scarred by them. The narrative works its way back to the origins of the uprising, to the factory girl, the hard-working, little educated group of young women trying to improve their lot, to obtain fair wages and equal rights. They become bolder when they meet in groups and speak of protesting, they educate themselves and each other and feel part of something, a movement and a feeling they wish to express publicly, with the naive assumption they won’t be arrested or killed.

It brings us back to humanity’s tendency to group, to find common interests, to progress as a team with common interests, to support each other and to the tendency of those in power to feel angry, threatened and violent towards those who have an equal ability to amass support, regardless of the merits of their cause.

Deborah Smith’s translation with all the narrative changes and structural vagaries works so well, it’s only the names and the occasional script that remind us that this was a work written in a language, so very different in its structure and ability than English, a challenge Smith was very much aware of, but overcame in this stunning result. I can only imagine how it must feel to read it in the original language.

Han Kang so immersed herself in these stories and events, that it is as if we are reading the experience of a holocaust survivor, a torture sufferer; we know only a little of what it must be like to live with the memory and the reluctance to want to share it, the heavy price that some pay when they do.

Despite the suffering and proximity to events, I was riveted by this novel all the way through, reading it slowly, endeavouring to expand my awareness to try to comprehend where the artist is taking us, to try to receive the answers too to those questions that have haunted her for so long.

I was constantly racking my brains.

Because I wanted to understand.

Somehow or other, I needed to make sense of what I’d experienced.

I remember Primo Levi’s book If This is A Man: The Truce, a memoir, and his words, which could easily have been a guide for Han Kang herself, in the way she has approached this incredibly moving, heart-shattering novel. It seems a fitting note on which to conclude this review, to recall his words and his intention in setting things down on paper.

052812_1909_IfThisisaMa1.jpgI believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Primo Levi

 

Further Reading

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Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher Portobello Books.