Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

Buy a Copy of Secret via Book Depository

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

Article, The Calvert Journal: “Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

Article, Peninsula, Qatar: Russian novel tells story of survival, love in Stalin’s camp

Buy a Copy of Zuleikha via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction – ‘cruzar el charco’

It seems appropriate to begin this post with a word, since this reading and writing adventure takes place word by word, across time and continents. Our word for today is charco which means puddle in Spanish and is also a colloquialism in some Latin American countries referring to the Atlantic Ocean.

And cruzar el charco means crossing the puddle, a way of referring to when someone is leaving the country, taking a trip somewhere far from home, across the ocean.

And this is what I have decided to do in 2019, to take a literary trip across the ocean to Latin America, and I’ll be doing that with the help of Charco Press, a small press based in Edinburgh, creating a bridge of cultural discovery for us to access the richness of that new world with a guide to contemporary literature authors that will likely be unfamiliar to us all.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So this year I have taken a subscription with Charco Press, so I don’t choose the books, I will read whatever they publish in their catalogue in 2019.

This will mean it’s not necessarily going to be something I might ordinarily read, I’ll be reading across borders and outside my comfort zone. But what a journey. No vaccinations required, no need for language classes, although we may still learn a few words along the way.

I have already read the first book and my review will be coming shortly, however, below are summaries of the six books I’ll be reading from this part of the world this year, in case you’d like to join me. As I read them, I’ll link my reviews back to this summary post.

Do let me know if any of these titles interest you, or whether you’ve read any other books published by Charco Press that you have enjoyed.

Click on the title to visit the Charco bookstore.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) (tr. Ellen Jones)

In this highly original collection of interconnected short stories, the Guatemalan countryside is ever-present, a place of timeless peace yet also riven by sudden violence. The stories provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man struck time and again by misfortune, as he confronts the crude realities of farming life. Over the course of these episodes we meet merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, drug dealers and fallen angels, all wanting their piece of the pie. Told with precision and a stark beauty, in a style that recalls Hemingway, Trout, Belly Up is a unique ensemble of beguiling, disturbing stories set in the heart of the rural landscape in a country where violence is never far from the surface.

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina) (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

In Feebleminded, Harwicz drags us to the border between fascination and discomfort as she explores aspects of desire, need and dependency through the dynamics between a mother and her daughter, searching through their respective lives to find meaning and define their own relationship.

Written in a wild stream of consciousness narration in the best tradition of Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute, and embedded in a trend of elusive violence so ingrained in contemporary Latin American fiction, Feebleminded follows the pair on a roller coaster of extreme emotions and examinations into the biographies of their own bodies where everything – from a childhood without answers to a desolate, loveless present – has been buried.

Told through brief but extremely powerful chapters, this short lyrical novel follows Die, My Love (my review here) as the second part in what Harwicz has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’.  An incredibly insightful interrogation on the human condition, desire and the burden of deep-rooted family mandates.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (Argentina) (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste begins in the great pause before a storm. Reverend Pearson is evangelizing across the Argentinian countryside with Leni, his teenage daughter, when their car breaks down. This act of God – or fate – leads them to the home of an aging mechanic called Gringo Brauer and his boy named Tapioca.

As a long day passes, curiosity and intrigue transform into an unexpected intimacy between four people: one man who believes deeply in God, morality, and his own righteousness, and another whose life experiences have only entrenched his moral relativism and mild apathy; a quietly earnest and idealistic mechanic’s assistant, and a restless, sceptical preacher’s daughter. As tensions between these characters ebb and flow, beliefs are questioned and allegiances are tested, until finally the growing storm breaks over the plains.

Selva Almada’s exquisitely crafted début, with its limpid and confident prose, is profound and poetic, a tactile experience of arid landscapes, heat, squat trees, broken cars, sweat-stained shirts, and ruined lives. The Wind That Lays Waste is a philosophical, beautiful, and powerfully distinctive novel that marks the arrival in English of an author whose talent and poise are undeniable.

Loop by Brenda Lozano (Mexico) (tr. Annie McDermott)

Loop is a love story narrated from the point of view of a woman who waits for her boyfriend Jonás to return from a trip to Spain. They met when she was recovering from an accident and he had just lost his mother. Soon after that, they were living together. She waits for him as a sort of contemporary Penelope who, instead of knitting only to then un-knit, she writes and erases her thoughts in a notebook: Proust, a dwarf, a swallow, a dreamy cat or David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’, make up some of the strands that are woven together in this tapestry of longing and waiting.

Written in a sometimes irreverent style, in short fragments that at points are more like haikus than conventional narrative prose, this is a truly original reflection on love, relationships, solitude and the aesthetics and purpose of writing.

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (Colombia) (tr. Sophie Hughes & Juana Adcock)

In a run-down neighbourhood, in an unnamed seaside city with barely any amenities, a father and son struggle to keep their heads above water. Rather than being discouraged by their difficulties and hardship, they are spurred to come up with increasingly outlandish plans for their survival. Even when a terrible, macabre event rocks the neighbourhood’s bar district and the locals start to flee, father and son decide to stay put. What matters is staying together. This is a bold poignant text that interplays a very tender father-son relationship while exposing homosexuality and homophobia with brutal honesty. With delicate lyricism and imagery, Caputo is extremely original and creative producing a tale that harmoniously balances violence, discrimination, love, sex and defiance, demonstrating that the he is a storyteller of great skill.

An Orphan World is about poverty, and the resourceful ways in which people manage to confront it. At the same time, it is a reflection about the body as a space of pleasure and violence. Perhaps above all else, An Orphan World is a brutally honest love letter between a father and son.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) (tr. Iona Macintyre & Fiona Mackintosh)

(* China. Pronounced ‘cheena’: designation for female, from the Quechua. Iron: The English word for Fierro, reference to the gaucho Martín Fierro, from José Hernández’s epic poem.)

This is a riotous romp taking the reader from the turbulent frontier culture of the pampas deep into indigenous territories. It charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to its national struggles. After a clash with Colonel Hernández (the author who ‘stole’ Martín Fierro’s poems) and a drunken orgy with gauchos, they eventually find refuge and a peaceful future in a utopian indigenous community, the river- dwelling Iñchiñ people.

Seen from an ox-drawn wagon, the narrative moves through the Argentinian landscape, charting the flora and fauna of the Pampas, Gaucho culture, Argentinian nation-building and British colonial projects.

In a unique reformulation of history and literary tradition, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, with humour and sophistication, re-writes Martín Fierro from a feminist, LGBT, postcolonial point of view. She creates a hilarious novel that is nevertheless incisive in its criticism of the way societies come into being, and the way they venerate mythical heroes.

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Some promising, diverse explorations across this puddle, I do hope you might join me at one of these destinations!

Further Reading: Exposing the UK to Contemporary Latin American Literature

Man Booker International Prize shortlist 2019 – #translatedfiction

The Man Booker International Prize, celebrates newly translated fiction into English; this years judges have now whittled their long list down to six titles, giving us this interesting and diverse shortlist below. Though you’ll find a lot of translated fiction on the pages of this blog, it’s a niche that’s dominated by small publishers, so less known and indulged by the wider reading public.

Things are changing however and readers are becoming more discerning and aware of being made to seem ignorant by publishers who’ve stuck predominantly to nationalistic loyalties. I say this personally, as I discovered when I moved to France that without even making an effort you are just as likely here to read Russian, Colombian or Japanese authors as you are French authors. 45% of their fiction is translated! 5% of ours is.

Do we really only want to be offered stories written by authors from one country, to read thoughts generated in the imagination of only one original language?

Though we are in a climate of Brexit and an era of vociferous intolerance towards multiculturalism; storytelling and literature in translation offer a quiet route to developing empathy and understanding of ‘the other’ and a reminder that we can both learn something new and find the familiar in words from elsewhere.

The prize equally awards the translator, which should boost the industry and help translators take on more projects bringing us more excellent literature from elsewhere. The shortlist includes five languages, Arabic, French, German, Polish and Spanish from six different cultures.

Bettany Hughes, chair of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, said:

‘Wisdom in all its forms is here. Unexpected and unpredictable narratives compelled us to choose this vigorous shortlist. Subversive and intellectually ambitious with welcome flashes of wit, each book nourishes creative conversation. We were struck by the lucidity and supple strength of all the translations.’

The six titles are listed below, summaries edited from the prize’s website: click on title to purchase a copy.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman) tr. Marilyn Booth (Arabic) Sandstone Press

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who emigrated to Canada. The three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society, slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, it tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.

“No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship, pain and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.” Jokha Alharti

The Years by Annie Ernaux(France) tr. Alison Strayer (French) Fitzcarraldo Editions

Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist’s defining work, a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present, photos, books, songs, radio, television, advertising, and news headlines. Local dialect, words of the times, slogans, brands and names for ever-proliferating objects are given voice. The author’s voice continually dissolves and re-emerges as Ernaux makes the passage of time palpable. Time itself, inexorable, narrates its own course, consigning all other narrators to anonymity. A new kind of autobiography emerges, at once subjective and impersonal, private and collective, a remembrance of things past.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann tr. Jen Calleja (German) Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail

When Gilbert, a journeyman lecturer on beard fashions awakes from a dream that his wife has cheated on him, he flees to Japan. In discovering the travel writings of the great Japanese poet Basho, he finds a purpose: a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the poet to see the moon rise over the pine islands of Matsushima. Falling in step with another pilgrim – a Japanese student with a copy of The Complete Manual of Suicide – Gilbert travels across Basho’s disappearing Japan with Yosa, one in search of his perfect ending and the other a new beginning that might give his life meaning. A serene, playful, moving story of the transformations we seek and those we find along the way.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Polish) Fitzcarraldo Editions

In a remote village in south-west Poland Janina Dusezjko, an eccentric woman in her 60s, describes the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. When members of a local hunting club are found murdered, she becomes involved in the investigation. No conventional crime story, this novel offers thought-provoking ideas on perceptions of madness, social injustice against people who are marginalised, animal rights, the hypocrisy of traditional religion, and belief in predestiny.

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia) tr. Anne McLean (Spanish) Quercus, MacLehose Press

Pacing the dark corridors of a hospital during the birth of his twin daughters, Juan Gabriel Vásquez befriends a physician. Through him he meets Carlos Carballo, a man consumed by a conspiracy theory about the assassination of a politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. He tries to persuade Vásquez to write a novel about the murder, but despite repeated refusals Vásquez is drawn into the conspiracy when Gaitán’s vertebrae, stored in a glass jar at a mutual friend’s house, goes missing. Sparking a turn of events, Varquez opens up a second, darker conspiracy about the assassination of another politician, Rafael Uribe Uribe, in 1914.

“It’s a novel about past violences written at a time in which my country was trying to find some form of present peace. It turns around two political murders that shaped Colombian history in the twentieth century, and it uses them to think about the ways in which violence can be inherited: an act committed half a century ago can influence and even determine our private lives in the present. Deep down, how does political violence work? How does it change our private lives?” Juan Gabriel Vasquez

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish) And Other Stories

Santiago, Chile. The city is covered in ash. Three children of ex-militants are facing a past they can neither remember nor forget. Felipe sees dead bodies on park benches, counting them in an obsessive quest to tally figures with the official death toll. He is searching for the perfect zero, a life with no remainder. Iquela and Paloma are also searching for a way to live on. When the body of Paloma’s mother gets lost in transit, the three take a hearse and a handful of pills up the cordillera for a road trip with a difference. Intense, intelligent, and extraordinarily sensitive to the shape and weight of words, this remarkable debut presents a new way to count the cost of generational trauma.

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I haven’t read any of the titles shortlisted, I’ve been watching since the long list came out, the one that most intrigues me is Celestial Bodies, because it promises to highlight aspects of Oman’s history as shown through the story of three sister’s lives. While The Shape of the Ruins sounds intriguing, I’m a little wary of it seeming a little like Roberto Bolano’s 2666 another lengthy South American novel that centred around unsolved murders, that was too much for me.

I’m also intrigued by Olga Tokarczuk’s latest, she won the prize last year, though this is said to be a different and lighter read to Flights that can be read on multiple levels, with its elements of mystery, nature writing and reflective, philosophical inclinations.

So have you read any of the novels on the shortlist? Do you already have a favourite?

The winner will be announced on May 21.

Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo tr. Howard Curtis

I’ve been looking forward to picking this novel up, because it’s set in and around the streets and coastal inlets of Marseilles (our local city) and even ventures into Aix-en-Provence and Vauvenargues (the scene of a murder in the novel – though known locally because Picasso lived in the château there). It was originally published in French in 1995, when Izzo was 50 years old, a mere five years before his premature passing.

Fabio Montale used to hang out with his friends Manu and Ugo, when they were growing up in the same neighbourbood of Marseilles. They were eyeing up his cousin Angèle as he escorted her home after a family visit. That first time he encountered them, they insulted him, he lashed out and got into a scuffle. He didn’t see them again until September, when they found themselves in the same class. They became firm friends.

Fast forward, they’re separated during compulsory military training, on their return they’ve become men.

Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is better than no life at all.

Discovering that even hard work doesn’t promise fast, easy money they think about opening a bookstore, but need funding, it’s the beginning of the slippery slope into a criminal life. They soon forget about the shop, having too much fun chasing danger and celebrating its rewards. Until it gets serious and someone gets hurt.

Looking at the city from my balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front of me, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop.

They haven’t seen each other for years and now Manu has been killed. Fabio has become a cop but hasn’t been put on this case, regardless, he makes it his personal responsibility to find out what happened.

They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done.

Vauvenargues, scene of a murder

As the story unfolds, he identifies who is involved in local criminal factions, the mafia, and attempts to unravel how his friend had come between them.

We meet an immigrant family, a father and his three children, whose mother died giving birth to the youngest. Having encountered them over a skirmish in a shop in one of the projects, Fabio befriends them. When a member of the family disappears, the two stories begin to overlap and Fabio has another more immediate crime to solve.

Each chapter takes us to another corner of Marseilles, each car ride and return home to the fishing village of Les Goudes (my pictures below) introduces us to a segment of music and the women in his life; while there may not be a peaceful solution to the pervasive bitterness and revenge laced throughout Izzo’s fragmented world, one thing offers him temporary respite and hope is music. It represents the cultural richness and diversity of this city, populated by a mix of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants.

(If you’re interested in what those musical instruments are doing in Les Goudes, read my post here – Champ Harmonique MP2013)

All this creates not just the plot of a crime story, but a picture of a man immersed and entangled in his complex city, attached to his familial village, his boat, the sea his refuge and his reliable motherly neighbour Honorine, who makes up for some of the lack in his life.

Although I was a good listener, I was never any good at confiding in anyone. At the last moment, I always clammed up. I was always ready to lie, rather than talk about what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the courage. I just didn’t trust anyone. Not enough, anyhow, to put my life and my feelings in another’s hands. And I knocked myself out trying to solve everything on my own. The vanity of a loser. I had to face it, I’d lost everything in my life.

It’s a journey through the senses, that penetrates the heart and soul of an unforgiving city whose inhabitants love it fiercely, in the pursuit of keeping a promise made in youth.

In a moving eulogy transcribed in the front of the book, Massimo Carlotto pays tribute to Izzo over his adept mastery of  Mediterranean noir, different to French noir:

His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation’s collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day.

Jean-Claude Izzo when asked about the phenomenal success of his trilogy, characteristically chose to shine the light on the city he loved:

“Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.”

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for providing a review copy.

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The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi tr. Luke Leafgren

Slightly surreal, nostalgic and deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of a childhood and early youth lived under the shadow of war, shared by a girl, (our unnamed narrator) who refuses to depict her childhood through the lens of suffering and devastation.

She shares their humanity, their connections, their hopes, and when she comes close to anything that might be traumatic, lifts off into dreams and the imagination, into other realms, soothed by the souls of the departed, the wisdom of her intuition creating metaphors and fantasy in her mind, an alternative way of seeing the world.

Her resilience isn’t defiant, it’s like a hardy shrub that wants to bloom even in the harshest environment and finds refuge in the imagination. One of her recurring dreams that she enters is the idea that they are living on a ship, one evening the Captain tries to answer her many questions. The fantasy world she creates when she closes her eyes, whether she is sleeping or awake, helps her cope, keeping childhood a place of both safety and wonder.

Listen my dear. The ship is an idea in your head and I am an idea in the head of the ship. Small ideas usually have delicate wings and when they lose their value on the earth, they fly up into space. The world we live in is just an idea made by the imagination of an inventive creator, and when he found it to be complicated, he began explaining it by means of other, smaller ideas…

We are prisoners of our imaginations, and our experiences in the world of reality consist only of ideas.
And don’t tell anyone, because people only believe things that come independently to their minds. Yet they don’t know where the mind is to be found.

She doesn’t understand the captains words, but knew he was telling her the truth.

Sometimes there are things we do not understand, and we know their meaning, not through words but rather, the meaning is already inside us before others talk to us about it. Some meanings exist inside us but are sleeping. Then words that we understand come and wake us up.

Memories are narrated through her friendship with Nadia, the girl she meets and sleeps next to in the air raid shelter in 1991, they tell each other stories and comfort each other in what is the beginning of a long and deep friendship that sustains them through the things that bring discontent, the sanctions, another war, the threat of separation.

We get to know the families who live and have lived in this neighbourhood, watching them grow and evolve, sharing those moments when they grow out of girlhood and begin to blossom. We are drawn into their lives until the black Chevrolet arrives and one by one they depart for elsewhere.

News from the outside and their fates isn’t shared by the usual channels, instead it comes in the form of a stranger entering the neighbourhood, a fortune teller. He warns them:

‘None of you have a future in this place. Sooner or later this ship will sink with all of you on board.’

One of the women dismisses him as a spy, but he has sown a seed of fear in them and the slow exodus begins. Uncle Shawkat becomes protector of abandoned homes, keeping away unwanted racketeers, writing names of the departed on the doors, the dates they lived there and the words, This House is Not for Sale.

It’s an unusual novel in its determination to not resort to pessimism, despite the suffering and loss that is around them, it clings to its memories of childhood and growing up, of friendship and budding love, of mother’s sitting around listening to the stories of the soothsayer, with only rare glimpses at the politics of their discontent.

Nadia and I were born during the war with Iran. We got to know each other during Desert Storm. We grew up in the years of the sanctions and the second Gulf War. George Bush and his son George W. Bush, took turns firing missiles and illegal weapons at our childhood, while Bill Clinton and that old woman Madeleine Albright were satisfied with starving us. And when we grew up, hell sat in wait for us.

It is a lament for days gone by, remembered by the young not the old, who know their children will grow up in other lands, other cultures, with little knowledge of their forebears, of their ways, their neighbourhood, the friendships that shaped them.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

Shahad Al Rawi
Source: Kareem El Deeb

It’s a beautifully written, poetic novel that won the hearts of readers in Edinburgh clearly, giving a unique insight into a culture, as lived by its children, its families, the lives impacted by foreign politics that no-one cares to share, the loss, not just in terms of human lives, but in an ancient, peaceful way of living that is no more.

Shahad Al Rawi was born in Baghdad and left there with her family for Syria. She now lives in Dubai and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology. The Baghdad Clock is her debut novel, it won the Edinburgh First Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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N.B. Thank you to the publisher One World Publications for providing a copy of the book.

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

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N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.