Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz tr. Sarah Moses, Carolina Orloff

Usually I read books because I am drawn to them by the premise, by the cultural setting, by an author’s intriguing background and experience which suggests to me they may have interesting insights to explore within a novel.

I hesitated about whether to read Die, My Love because of what I perceived as its intensity, I thought it might be depressing. The reviewer whom I expressed this too, responded:

I would say razor-sharp and brutally honest rather than depressing. No punches are pulled.

She was reviewing it, along with all the other titles long listed for the new Republic of Consciousness literary prize created by novelist Neil Griffiths to acknowledge and celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” published in the UK and Ireland.

When it was short listed for this prize and simultaneously long listed for the Man Booker International 2018, I decided to read it and find out, despite the earlier hesitation, similarly to the feeling I had about reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

We meet a young woman, a university educated foreigner, living in the French countryside with her husband and their small child, another on the way. She is lying in the grass, in 35°C (95°F) summer heat, thinking disturbing, violent thoughts against those around her, while expressing an acute, brutal self-hatred alongside an intense uncontrollable desire.

Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanize the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish.

It’s written in an urgent stream of consciousness narrative, focused on the minutiae of her day, much of it spent waiting for her husband to return from work, observing herself by turn, in her acts of taking care of and neglecting the needs of her helpless son, fantasizing about harming herself.

I throw out the heavy nappy and walk towards the patio doors. I always toy with the idea of going right through the glass and cutting every inch of my body, always aiming to pass through my own shadow. But just before I hit it, I stop myself and slide it open.

It’s a rendition of spiralling out of control, sometimes playing the part of mother, in front of friends on the odd occasion they’re invited to a birthday party or playing the daughter in law at a family gathering, but not too hard, because it is impossible, the insanity too close to be able to sustain any form of denial for too long a period of time.

When my husband’s away, every second of silence is followed by a hoard of demons infiltrating my brain.

If she’s not going crazy from the silence, she’s targeting the weak, aggressing the overweight nurse who comes to tend to the neighbour, acting haughty with the women working in the supermarket, the pizza delivery men, the manicurists.

I yell at them in public. I like to make a scene, humiliate them, show them how cowardly they are. Because that’s what they are: chickens. How come none of them have tried to fight me? How come none of them have called the authorities to have me deported?

As a reader, I can’t help asking questions, like, what is this? Is this postpartum depression? No, this was a pre-existing condition that started before she gave birth, that continued afterwards and seems never to have ended.

Is this the result of leaving her education, her intellectual self behind? Of embracing motherhood? Of being separated from her country, culture, her family, the way of her own people? Those things are never ever mentioned, never alluded too, never missed, there is no nostalgia for the past, only a visceral disgust for the present, a desire for a future where she is taken out, extinguished.

We were only just waking up from the weekend and already we were fighting. At half past eight I let out the first scream, at nine-twenty I threatened to leave, and at nine-fifty I said I’d make his life a living hell. By ten past ten, I was standing like a ram in the middle of the road with my straw hat on, suitcase in hand and flies in my eardrums.

She reflects that even were she to get hit and killed, it would unlikely gain her sympathy, that would be saved for her poor child, left without a mother.

No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life.

She blames desire, calls it a destructive hunger, an alarm, ferocious.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire that is.

I waver between wondering if this is something a woman would experience if the circumstances are created that deprive her of the things she needs for sustenance, or is this a woman creating what she perceives as art, an art form that is designed to shock, to provoke a response in its audience.

In an interview by Jackie Law at Never Imitate, when asked about her inspiration, Ariana Harwicz responded:

Motherhood as a form of prison, a trap, an ordinary destiny. Writing the novel was a chance to escape that.

When asked about herself:

I always say that I was born when I wrote Die, My Love. Before then, I was alive, in the same way that everybody is alive, yet for me that is not really being alive. I had recently had a baby, I had moved to live in the countryside next to a forest. I would watch the thunderstorms, I would go horse-riding, but that was not life for me. And then I wrote Die, My Love, immersed in that desperation between death and desire. Die, My Love comes from that. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.

In a podcast with the London Review Bookshop, she expressed interest first and foremost in the question ‘What is it, to be an artist?’, her response to her own question illuminating:

An artist, is someone is willing to break tradition, convention and transgress outside the norm

This is what she succeeds in doing in Die, My Love. She pursues it with intellectual vigour, with a bold, unapologetic, Argentinian energy that busts out of convention, leaves the old form of language and expression behind, takes her literary weapons into the forest and wreaks havoc on the page and in the mind of the reader.

Note: Thank you to Charco Press, independent publisher of contemporary Latin American literature, for providing an e-book.

Buy a copy of Die, My Love from Charco Press

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Man Booker International Prize 2018 long list

I like to read books that come from within other cultures, so a literature prize that brings attention to authors from outside the predominant literary cultures interests me.

The Man Booker International Prize was originally established in 2005, biannually rewarding an author for a body of work originally written in any language as long as it was widely available in English.

From 2016, the prize became a translation prize, awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK. To highlight the importance of translation, the £50,000 prize is divided equally between the author and the translator.

The Man Booker International Prize has revealed their ‘Man Booker Dozen’ of 13 novels in contention for the 2018 prize, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world. As with the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, extract summaries of the books are provided via the Prize website.

The judges considered 108 books. Lisa Appignanesi, chair of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, commented:

‘Judging this Man Booker International Prize has been an exhilarating adventure. We have travelled across countries, cultures, imaginations, somehow to arrive at what could have been an even longer long list. It’s one which introduces a wealth of talent, a variety of forms and some writers little known in English before. It has great writing and translating energy and we hope readers take as much pleasure in discovering the work as we did.’

The full 2018 longlist is as follows: Author (nationality), Translator, Title (imprint)

Laurent Binet (France), Sam Taylor(tr.), The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker)

Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It’s February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with François Mitterrand, a slippery politician locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything.

Javier Cercas (Spain), Frank Wynne(tr.), The Impostor (MacLehose Press)

The Impostor is a true story that is packed with fiction – fiction created by its main character, Enric Marco. But who is Enric Marco? A veteran of the Spanish civil war, a fighter against fascism, an impassioned campaigner for justice, and a survivor of the Nazi death camps? Or, is he simply an old man with delusions of grandeur, a charlatan who fabricated his heroic war record, who was never a prisoner in the Third Reich and never opposed Franco, but simply a charming, beguiling and compulsive liar who refashioned himself as a defender of liberty and who was unmasked in 2005 at the height of his influence and renown?

In this novel – part narrative, part history, part essay, part biography, part autobiography – Javier Cercas unravels the man and delves with passion and honesty into the most ambiguous aspects of what makes us human – our infinite capacity for self-deception, our need for conformity, our thirst for affection and our conflicting needs for fiction and for the truth.

Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne (tr.), Vernon Subutex 1 (MacLehose Press)

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Bastille. His legend spread throughout Paris. But by the 2000s, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CDs and vinyl, his shop is struggling. When it closes, Subutex is out on a limb, with no idea what to do next. Nothing sticks. Before long, his savings are gone, his employment benefit is cut, and when the friend who had been covering his rent dies suddenly, Subutex finds himself relying on friends with spare sofas and ultimately alone and out on the Paris streets. But, as he is stretching out his hand to beg from strangers in the street, a throwaway comment he made on Facebook is taking the internet by storm.

Vernon does not realise this, of course. It has been many weeks since he was able to afford access to the internet, but the word is out: Vernon Subutex has in his possession the last filmed recordings of Alex Bleach, famous musician and Vernon’s benefactor, who recently died of a drug overdose. Unbeknown to Vernon, a crowd of people, from record producers to online trolls and porn stars, are now on his trail.

Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Susan Bernofsky(tr.), Go, Went, Gone (Portobello Books)

Newly retired Richard is considering his new life without his work as a university professor.  He spends his days cooking, pottering in his garden and walking around his home city of Berlin – a place he has lived his entire life. Following an excursion to Alexanderplatz he befriends a group of African men whose camp is being pulled down by the authorities. These asylum seekers have found their way to Berlin from all over Africa by way of Libya and then Italy. They have no ‘right’ to be in Berlin, and they must follow the protocols and rules if they have any hope in being allowed to remain.

Richard is captivated by their stories and by their predicament.  Born during World War II, he was almost lost as a baby due to the ‘chaos of war’. He grew up and worked in East Berlin until one day East and West unified and his home and horizons changed dramatically. Go, Went, Gone is a novel that explores some of the most important issues of the day of race, immigration and the question of European identity.

Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith(tr.), The White Book (Portobello Books)

An unnamed narrator moves to a European city where she is haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. As she contemplates the child’s short life she focuses on the whiteness and all it symbolises. The White Book is a meditation on colour, beginning with a list of white things. It is a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.

Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff(tr.), Die, My Love (Charco Press) – my review here

In a patch of dilapidated French countryside, a woman struggles with the demons of her multitudinous internal conflicts. Embracing exclusion, yet desiring to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life and yet wanting to burn the entire façade down. Given surprising leeway by her family for her increasingly erratic behaviour, she instead feels ever more incarcerated, stifled. Motherhood, womanhood, the mechanisation of love, the inexplicable brutality of having ‘your heart live in someone else’s’; these questions are faced with raw intensity. It is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but rather when, and how violent a form will it take.

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock Press)

A Hungarian interpreter obsessed with waterfalls, at the edge of the abyss in his own mind, wanders the chaotic streets of Shanghai. A traveller, reeling from the sights and sounds of Varanasi, encounters a giant of a man on the banks of the Ganges ranting on the nature of a single drop of water. A child labourer in a Portuguese marble quarry wanders off from work one day into a surreal realm alien from his daily toils. A collection of 21 stories from the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2015.

Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, Like a Fading Shadow (Tuskar Rock Press)

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered by James Earl Ray. Before Ray’s capture and sentencing to 99 years’ imprisonment, he evaded the FBI for two months as he crossed the globe under various aliases. At the heart of his story is Lisbon, where he spent 10 days attempting to acquire an Angolan visa. Aided by the recent declassification of James Earl Ray’s FBI case file, Like a Fading Shadow weaves a taut retelling of Ray’s assassination of King, his time on the run and his eventual capture, tied together with an honest examination of the novelist’s own past.

Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), Simon Pare, The Flying Mountain (Seagull Books)

The Flying Mountain tells the story of two brothers who leave the southwest coast of Ireland on an expedition to Transhimalaya, the land of Kham, and the mountains of eastern Tibet – looking for an untamed, unnamed mountain that represents perhaps the last blank spot on the map. As they advance toward their goal, the brothers find their past, and their rivalry, inescapable, inflecting every encounter and decision as they are drawn farther and farther from the world they once knew. Only one of the brothers will return. Transformed by his loss, he starts life anew, attempting to understand the mystery of love, yet another quest that may prove impossible.

Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld)

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the junk dealer Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses his path. As the violence escalates and Hadi’s acquaintances – a journalist, a government worker and a lonely old woman – become involved, the ‘Whatsitsname’ and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined.

Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Flights is a novel about travel in the 21st century and human anatomy. From the 17th  century, the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, discovering in so doing the Achilles tendon. From the 18th century, the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death in spite of his daughter’s ever more desperate protests, and the story of Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw, stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt. From the present we have the trials and tribulations of a wife accompanying her much older professor husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, the quest of a Polish woman who emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager but must now return to Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation.

Through these narratives, interspersed with short bursts of analysis and digressions on topics ranging from travel-sized cosmetics to the Maori, Flights guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.

Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), Darryl Sterk, The Stolen Bicycle (Text Publishing) – my review here

Cheng, a novelist, once wrote a book based on his father’s disappearance 20 years ago. One day he receives a reader’s email asking whether his father’s bicycle disappeared as well. Perplexed and amused, Cheng decides to track down the bicycle, which was stolen years ago. The search takes him on an epic quest, deep into the secret world of antique bicycle collectors via a scavenger’s treasure trove and the mountain home of an aboriginal photographer. He also finds himself caught up in the strangely intertwined stories of Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, the soldiers who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia during the World War II and the secret worlds of the butterfly handicraft makers… The Stolen Bicycle is both a historical novel about bicycles, elephants and war, and a startlingly intimate meditation on memory, family and home.

Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), Natasha Wimmer, The Dinner Guest (Harvill Secker)

In 1977, three terrorists broke into Gabriela Ybarra’s grandfather’s home and pointed a gun at him in the shower. This was the last time his family saw him alive, and his kidnapping played out in the press, culminating in his murder. Ybarra first heard the story when she was eight, but it was only after her mother’s death, years later, that she felt the need to go deeper and discover more about her family’s past. The Dinner Guest is a novel inspired by what she found.  It connects two life-changing events – the very public death of Ybarra’s grandfather and the more private pain as her mother dies from cancer and Gabriela cares for her.

***

I haven’t read any of these books, though I am familiar with a number of the authors, I’ve read two excellent books by Han Kang, Human Acts and The Vegetarian. I’ve been meaning to read Jenny Erpenbeck for a while.

I like the sound of the novels that intertwine memoir with fiction, Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest and Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle.

The list does feel a little too Euro-centric for my taste, with 9 of the 13 storytellers coming from Europe, it’s great to see an Argentinian author included, I did read that Charco Press discovered in an informal survey that many readers when asked to name a South American author are mentioning names who were popular 30 years ago, so they’re aiming to bring us up to speed with some exciting contemporary authors who’ve been overlooked.

I’ll be waiting to read a few of the reviews from the Shadow panel in the coming weeks and months and in the meantime continue with reading a few more from the Women’s Prize.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on 12 April at an event at Somerset House in London, and the winner of the 2018 prize will be announced on 22 May.

***

What are your thoughts on this list?

Click here to buy one of the above books via BookDepository

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.

 

Eve out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman #WITMonth

I was intrigued to read a book by a Mauritian author during Women in Translation month. Eve out of her Ruins hadn’t been on my initial list, but it was recommended to me and I decided to get a copy especially as I’ve been seeing many images of the island of Mauritius recently.

My Uncle is spending some months there at present, designing a noir thriller film called Serenity, starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey. A fishing boat captain’s past is about to crash up against his life on a tropical island.

Thank you Andrew McAlpine for the photos shared below, which so well depict the contrasts of Mauritius.

Ananda Devi writes from her roots. Deep within the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was colonised by Dutch, French and English explorers, traces of this colonial past remain evident both in the landscape and among the languages spoken by its multifarious population, descendants of settlers, slaves, indentured servants, and finally immigrants.

Though the blurb does mention the novel is enchanting and harrowing in equal measures, it is the story that is harrowing and the lyrical prose that is enchanting.

…she has trained her novelistic gaze on disenfranchised populations and the ways in which femininity is shaped and established. Her gorgeously hewn sentences rarely shy away from depicting violence or suffering; her novels, rather, embrace the entirety of human experience, from abject suffering to unalloyed joy. Jeffrey Zuckerman, Translator

The novel is narrated through four teenage voices, two young men Saad and Clélio, who like many young people on the island are bored and belong to a gang, not through any desire to cause harm, but almost to create some kind of a sense of community, their destructive tendencies more a result of a restless energy that has no other channel.

Saadiq, though everyone calls him Saad is in love with Eve and wants nothing more than to be able to protect her, and though she is used by everyone, there is something between these two, something that both draws them together and keeps them apart. He loves words, he expresses himself through the poetry of others, inscribing lines upon a wall, when he finds the phrase that resonates.

“Our cité is our kingdom. Our city in the city, our town in the town. Port Louis has changed shape; it has grown long teeth and buildings taller than its mountains. But our neighbourhood hasn’t changed. It’s the last bastion. Here, we let our identities happen: we are those who do not belong. We call ourselves bann Troumaron – the Troumaronis – as if we were yet another kind of people on this island filled with so many kinds already. Maybe we actually are.

Our lair, our playground, our battleground, our cemetery. Everything is here. We don’t need anything else. One day we’ll be invincible and the world will tremble. That’s our ambition.”

The two girls Eve and Savita are friends, the light in each others eyes and lives, something observed by the boys that generates jealousy and inspires something terrible.

There is  a second person narrative throughout, written in italics, employing the you voice, an omniscient presence that sees everything, enters the minds of characters, in particular Eve and all who encounter her, it understands everything and voices thoughts that can not be expressed.

Out of distress. Out of misery. Confirming angrily, belligerently, hopelessly, what they’re all thinking, over there, outside.

Being. Becoming. Not disappearing in your eyes. Escaping the straitjacket of passivity, of idleness, of failure, of ashen gazes, of leaden days, of sharpened hours, of shadowy lives,of faraway deaths, of gravelly failures, of lingering, of nakedness, of ugliness, of mockery, of laughter, of tears, of moments, of eternity, of shortness, of heaviness, of night, of day, of afternoons, of dawns, of faded Madonnas, of vanished temptresses.

None of that is you.

It is a tragic account, full of foreboding, it seems as if there is no escape, the one that did, a brother, promised to return, a hollow promise.

She forces open a door in darkness’s wall. This opening indeed reveals the beauty of the island, of this gift from the gods that is Mauritius, this gift that humans do not deserve but only a few innocents may ever see. J.M G. Le Clézio

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

Claudine and Annie (Book 4) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After her abrupt departure from Paris back to her father’s home in Montigny, to the village home where she grew up, I was curious to know what was to come of our troubled Claudine and her errant husband.

It was something of a surprise to realise that in this fourth book, we are back in Paris, but in the home and seeing through the eyes of a weeping Annie who is the narrator of this fourth book in The Complete Claudine series.

Annie is weeping because her husband of four years Alain, whom she known since she a child and rarely left his side, is about to depart on a boat for Brazil, due to notice of a recent inheritance which necessitates his going there to relinquish assets, prize bulls or something or other!

“Before I had turned thirteen, he was already the master of my life. Such a handsome master! A red-haired boy, with a skin whiter than an egg and blue eyes that dazzled me.”

Annie writes in beautiful notebook he gave her for the purpose of keeping her ‘Diary of his journey’. She reads the list of duties he drew up for her, with his usual solicitous firmness, in which we see reference to Claudine among those she has permission to call on and with which frequency:

“Only one call on Claudine and her husband. Too fantastically unconventional a couple for a young woman to frequent while her husband is away on a long journey.”

However he is more than happy that she spend time with his sister Marthe, about whom he writes:

“My dear Annie will give me much pleasure if she frequently consults my sister Marthe and goes out with her. Marthe has a great deal of good sense and even common-sense under her rather unconventional exterior.”

Annie’s perception of herself at the beginning is defined only in terms of her husband, and her husband’s interests are solely related to himself and how he wishes her to be.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

She even goes so far to refer to herself, as if it were a term of endearment as his ‘little slave girl’, a term her husband often called her, of course he says it without malice, with only a faint contempt for my dark-skinned race.

This passive, domestic Annie, grieving for her master husband is something of a disappointment, after the more confident, sensuous and outspoken Claudine, but I’m thankful there is at least an acquaintance, which promises Annie’s potential awakening.

In fact, Annie’s awakening and change in perception begins, soon after, when her sister-in-law makes an unkind comment on a portrait of her brother, likening him to a cockerel, an image thereafter Annie finds hard to remove from her mind, it serves to lift a little the blinkers from her view of this husband.

Parisian friends depart for the summer, to a thermal spa for the cure, to the annual opera festival in Germany, and it is here we see glimpses of Claudine and her husband, showing her grown in confidence within her marriage, having negotiated a way to curb their potentially destructive impulses.

Marthe’s husband is a novelist she continuously pushes to write faster, to hurry deadlines to meet the many financial commitments required to keep their lifestyle in the lavish manner she is accustomed to.

While Annie is able to confide in Claudine, the behaviour of her sister-in-law is too much for her and she decides to return to Paris to consider and prepare for the return of her husband, to make sense of how his absence has changed her.

“To free myself from the obsession – was it really to free myself?…I jumped out of bed and ran to look for Alain’s latest photograph that I had hidden between two sachets.

Whatever had happened? Was I actually dreaming? I could not recognise that handsome young man there. Those harsh eyebrows, that arrogant stance like a cock! No, surely I was mistaken or perhaps the photographer had absurdly overdone the re-touching?

But no, that man there was my husband who is far away at sea. I trembled before his picture as I tremble before myself. A slavish creature, conscious of its chains – that is what he has made of me ..Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory of our past as a young married couple that could delude me again, that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Colette and Willy

Claudine and Annie is very different to the first three books and while I don’t know why Colette turned to an alternative narrator and wrote about such a submissive character, it makes me ponder a corollary with her own life, as she was a free-spirited child, close to nature, who married young to an older man, who put her to work on these novels.

It is said she was no great writer initially, but that he turned her into one, locking her in her room until she turned out something, which he faithfully edited and published in his own name. After thirteen years of such an apprenticeship, she was undoubtedly disillusioned, divorced him and then fought to be recognised for the work she had produced. She was also determined not to be financially dependent on a man.

Claudine and Annie strikes me as a novel of resistance, but using a character that is almost unrecognisable, the alter-ego of Colette perhaps, that aspect of her that was suppressed and oppressed all those years, whose slow awakening allowed her to see that man before her for who he really was, her slave master.

I was asked which of the series had been my favourite and I find I am really unable to choose as they go together so well and should be read as one.

Clearly, as this review suggests, the first three have a particular harmony as they are all narrated by Claudine and more centred around her life and growth, this fourth book is less about Claudine and we see her only from afar, as a confidante of the troubled Annie, however it deserves its place as I suspect there is more to Annie than the character on the page, for me it was read with a question hanging over it in relation to the life Colette was living at the time.

I loved Claudine at School for her exuberant overconfidence and love of nature, Claudine in Paris for her naivety and prudence, realising there was much about life she had still to learn and Claudine Married for the melancholy of marriage, of the realisation of her false ideals and indulgence of strong emotional impulses.

And where to from here? Well, I will be continuing to read a few more women in translation during August, but will also be looking out for La Maison de Claudine (My Mother’s House), a memoir of Sido (her mother) and her own provincial childhood.

Further Reading

An Introduction to the Author, Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 3 – Claudine Married

Claudine in Paris (Book 2) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

After years of freedom in her beloved countryside of Montigny, having been Queen of her domain and revered in school, Claudine weakens on arrival in Paris, forcibly confined to the rooms within their new home in illness. She wonders what has happened to her, hardly recognising herself.

Her father assumes his previous habits, embarking on his latest project, confined to his library most days, employing an assistant to help him, a young man who appears to have a crush on Claudine.

Seeking company outside the home, Claudine asks after her father’s sister.

“Why haven’t we seen my aunt yet? Haven’t you written to her? Haven’t you been to see her?”

Papa, with the condescension one displays to mad people, asked me gently, with a clear eye and a soothing voice:

“Which aunt, darling?”

Accustomed to his absent-mindedness, I made him grasp that I was actually talking about his sister.

Thereupon he exclaimed, full of admiration:

“You think of everything! Ten thousand herds of swine! Dear old girl, how pleased she’ll be to know we are in Paris.” He added, his face clouding: “She’ll hook on to me like a damn’ leech.”

She is delighted to finally meet her Aunt and to discover Marcel, the young man Claudine’s age who she is guardian to, in fact Marcel is Claudine’s nephew, sent to live with his grandmother after the premature death of his mother.

If Claudine at School represents the unfettered, exuberant joys of teenage freedom, of the innocent and immature love between friends and the cruel indulgences of playful spite, Claudine in Paris is the slap in the face of regarding an approaching adult, urban world, one where the streets are inhabited by hidden dangers, the skies are more gloomy, people are not what they seem, even old friends from school become unrecognisable when the city and her frustrated inhabitants get their clutch onto the innocent.

Claudine wants to embrace it all with the same fervour she did her old school, but discovers her own prudence, when confronted with the reality of entering adulthood.

“There I was, making myself out completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! you can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen.’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways. I lay about me with my umbrella or else I flee from vice with a noble gesture. In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl. How Marcel would despise me if he knew that!”

Marcel’s father, whom she calls Uncle Renaud, introduces her to the theatre, she gets outfitted with a more appropriate wardrobe for a social life in Paris, she begins to delight in her new surroundings, although a melancholy often arises when she thinks of her life in the countryside, an affliction she thinks might be resolved by finding the right relationship.

“The lilies-of-the-valley on the chimney-piece intoxicated me and gave me a migraine. What was the matter with me? My unhappiness over Luce, yes, but something else too – my heart was aching with homesickness. I felt as ridiculous as that sentimental engraving hanging on the wall of Mademoiselle’s drawing-room Mignon regretting her fatherland. And I thought I was cured of so many things and had lost so many of my illusions! Alas, my mind kept going back to Montigny.”

She even misses her homework and having to explain those mindless subjects she used to abhor, such as ‘Idleness is the mother of all vices,’ one she has had the misfortune to come to understand better .

A marriage proposal awakens her from her misery, an idea forms in her mind and before we know it, the page has turned and we are into Claudine Married!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 3 – Claudine Married (to come)