So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

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

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Spain) tr. Lisa Dillman

Such Small Hands is an incredible and unique novella, quite unlike anything I have read, it’s written almost from another dimension. The author somehow enters into a childlike perspective and witnesses the aftermath of a car accident in which the child Marina’s parents don’t survive.

“My father died instantly, and then my mother died in the hospital.”

An omniscient narrator theorizes on her relationship to sounds and words, as she repeats certain phrases and sees visions of the accident recurring.

As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.

Marina sees a psychologist after recovering from her own injuries and is placed in an orphanage.

The narrative alternates between Marina’s perspective and the collective “we” of all the other girls. Marina is already different, in that up until she entered the orphanage she lived in her own family with her parents, unlike many of the other children.

They love her, they are intrigued by her, but resent the attention she receives.

“This is the moment when Marina realises something: I’m different. And as always, the realisation itself outshines the symbolic event that lead to it, the realisation emerges from the sludge of reality performed, , round and irrefutable, , something that had always been there: I’m different.”

Marina introduces them to a game, which splits their daytime from their nighttime selves. Without another outlet for their emotions, they resort to certain behaviours, which begin like a game, but without an authority to draw the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

“The doll opened one eye, her right one, slowly, surprised. Her hands were still, resting on her knees, waiting for what she did not know. We didn’t know either. It was just the momentum of the circle, the knowledge that something was about to spring like a coil, the conviction that the circle would spin faster and faster and faster until it was so fast that it would vanish into the air, and we’d vanish with it, everything would vanish.”

Inspired by a disturbing event, this enters the realm of post trauma in an innocent and bizarre way, taking the reader back to a kind of twilight zone of an insecure childhood, where the nightmare becomes real and the line between reality and dreams is blurred.

Fascinating.

Andrés Barba is the author of twelve books and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish Novelists.

He was a teacher at a university in Madrid and now gives writing workshops. His writing has been translated into ten languages.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – An unsettling tale set in an orphanage will trouble readers long after they have put the novella aside by Sarah Perry

Paris Review – All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba by Jonathan Lee

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 Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

The Gift of StonesFrom whispering muse to the gift of stones, this was the second book I read in 2016, one of Jim Crace’s earlier philosophical works, telling the tale of a village of stone workers, who live a simple life working stone into weapons, which are then traded with passers-by for food and other essentials, which they are not able to provide for themselves, in the arid landscape within which they reside. It is a livelihood they think little about, it is all they know.

A boy’s destiny is changed after he is injured in the arm by an arrow. The arrow is a symbol of change and both opens and closes this short, though provoking novella.

The injury becomes a turning point for a boy, his arm partially amputated, making him unable to follow in the village tradition, he must find another way of contributing to his community. His predicament is a foretelling of what is to come, but first he alone must learn to adapt.

He ventures outside, further from the village than anyone has ever been, near the sea and the heath, bringing them tales of beyond, discovering the allure and power of imagination. Experiencing things and feelings he has never encountered.

Already an orphan living with his uncle in a stone age village of people who work with flint, his injury turns him into a storyteller, inspired by his walks along the coastline towards the heath where he meets a woman with her baby living alone in a hut. He discovers how to captivate and amuse an audience, to take their minds off their day-to-day torments.

‘The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.’

He brings the woman back to the village, however she isn’t welcomed by the villagers, set in their ways. She too symbolises the lessons they must learn, though they will realise this much too late. When he tells the villagers her history, a truth, they become bored and turn away.

‘Quite soon they found it far too dark and cold to listen to my father any lore. They peeled away before the tale was done, unmoved by my father’s portrait of the widow and her child on the heath, her struggles not to die, her hardships, grief and hunger, the slaughter of the geese, the crushing of her hut. Quite soon there were no cousins left to hear my father’s tale. His audience – excluding bats and mother – had crept away, unamused and angered by the venom in his voice.

My father stood alone and startled – for now he understood the power of the truth.’

flint arrow head

It is a philosophical tale of unrequited love, abandonment, survival and the heralders of change, how communities react to the necessity to adjust, and to those who are different, outsiders.

It touches on the role of imagination and storytelling, not just as entertainment and a craft, but as those who foresee change, create invention, imagine other ways of life.

Poignant and intriguing, given the era within which it is set and a kind of tribute to the greater importance of storytelling within society.

 

Unsettled: A Search for Love and Meaning by Neelima Vinod

Neelima Vinod is a poet whose work I have enjoyed reading online at Neel The Muse for a while, so I was intrigued to read her novella when learning that she had been published, wondering how a poet might fill the page when the words and sentences were required to touch both margins of the page continuously. Curious too, as it delves into the supernatural within the context of the story telling heritage of southern India, not quite the same as that contemporary foray into what is we refer to as the paranormal.

UnsettledBeing a novella, it is a relatively quick read and starts out as a love story, or its anti-thesis as it is clear that the relationship between the couple is being threatened by perceived jealousy. To heal their relationship Divya and Raghav seek out the services of Dr Ray, a yogi.

The Doctor sends them on a quest, to retrieve the ancient Scrolls of Love from an old abandoned house about which many stories have been told and which no one wishes to enter, in fear of what it is said to be possessed by. The Doctor’s motives do not appear to be entirely altruistic, a twist in the story that was almost too subtle and had me rereading passages to observe him more closely than I did the first time through.

house-next-door“It is in the one hundred-roomed mansion at Cherakad that the Scrolls of Love were buried during the terrible floods. It nearly wiped the village off the map centuries ago. No one has confirmed it though.

Archaeologists I have talked to have told me that the house lies abandoned. Any one in possession of the Scrolls would understand love’s true secret-folklore at its best.”

Parallel to the contemporary love story, we read a tale of the Royal Court poet Shankara, banished from the kingdom of Cherakad five centuries ago after falling out of favour with one of the King’s concubines Meenakshi. Shankara roams the land in confusion and without purpose until he encounters a woman in white, Thathri, the same woman Divya has been dreaming of, whose story she had been told by her Grandmother when she was a child.

As the book progresses, connections between the tales arise as the mystery unravels, the past and the present become entwined as the couple attempt to conquer their quest and resurrect their struggling relationship.

storytellerWell written, it’s an enjoyable read and one that requires careful attention in order to make the connections clear. I am sure there are things I was not aware of, I even wondered if Shankara was based on a real poet and whether this fable  had connection to stories already told and passed down through families and villages. Sadly, it is a dying art, the gift of oral story telling, threatened more than ever by the technology of today’s modern world.

Its title might suggest romance, but the dark and foreboding cover and spectre like presence within suggest it may be more of an alternative ghost story. Unsettling indeed.

Thank you Neelima for sending me a copy of your e-book.

If you are interested in reading it, you can find a copy at the Indireads Book Store.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel tr. Euan Cameron

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?

The Housekeeper + The Professor

Having recently discovered and read Yoko Ogawa’s
‘The Diving Pool’, I was further intrigued when I saw this novella displayed in my local bookshop and couldn’t resist another of her works with its beautiful cover and the promise of an alluring story about a woman who visits an eccentric mathematics professor each day to clean his home and cook his meals.

Reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ is a little like a meditation in mindfulness; although we might escape into the book, we are held in its present, for each day is a repeat of the previous and follows a pattern, such as we might too if our memory were constantly erased after eighty minutes, the habits we would continually follow, because we have been reduced to the very core of our nature, without the accumulation of memory from yesterday, last week or last year.

The Professor is a mathematics genius, whose memory ceased functioning after an accident some years before, so while he retains his mathematical genius and his long term memory before the accident, he has lost his short term memory.  It lasts only eighty minutes and so he has devised crude methods to remember things, such as pinning small pieces of paper to his suit to remind him of important facts, otherwise he starts every day anew.

The housekeeper arrives each morning and introduces herself as if they have never met. Slowly, she and her ten year old son, whom the Professor refers to as Root – a reference to the square root sign and his hair, are drawn into the Professor’s reduced world where numbers reign supreme and the two visitors begin to understand the magic and meaning behind what they had always thought of as ordinary numbers.

Whether you hated mathematics at school or loved it like I did, you will find yourself attracted to the arithmetic secrets the Professor unveils, which stir more than a mild curiosity in the significance of certain numbers and the challenge of elegant equations, as both the housekeeper and her son discover to their own delight.

Eternal truths are ultimately invisible , and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions.  Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.

In essence, it is a meditation on the simplicity of life and an introduction to the complexity and significance of numbers; it is about letting go and accepting things the way they are and deriving small pleasures from the mundane.

Yoko Ogawa’s writing and storytelling flows like a sparkling river, it draws you in and carries you along; there are few surprises just gradual awakenings. There is a vulnerability to each of the main characters that we pick up on, which forewarns us, characters we become sympathetic to, whom I was sad to leave behind but will be revisiting again for sure.