#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

#20Books of Summer: An Entertaining Start

 Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa

Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.

The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.

With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.

Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).

It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.

In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.

Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger

This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.

None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.

Family Saga Set in Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz

This is not the edition I am talking about in the text; I simply love the cover photo.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny (originally published in 1956)

This is the first in the so-called Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz and the first book I ever read of his, even though there was a flurry of translation activity after his Nobel Prize win in 1988. I actually ordered this volume for the #1956Club back in March 2020, but ran out of time to read it. Historical fiction for present-day readers, as the events described in this book took place more than 100 years ago. However, when Mahfouz first published this, it was recent history, and it is not at all coy about the relationship between Egyptians and their ‘protectors’, the English.

This particular edition (paperback of the 1990 translation Doubleday, reissued in 1994 by Black Swan) did have quite a few typos, repeated or missing prepositions and articles etc. Initially, these jarred terribly, but once I got wrapped up in the story, I ceased to notice them as much. I assume this must have been a problem with the reissue, as I would like to think that any work involving the editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be of a high standard.

The trilogy is at once the story of a family, and also that of a city and a country in transition, although in the first volume the social and political landscapes only become dominant towards the end of the book. The story opens with the First World War (in which Egypt held an uneasy position, having formerly been an Ottoman colony, and now under British protectorate) and continues with the 1919 attempt at revolution for Egyptian independence.

The Al Jawad family lives in one of the older inner city neighbourhoods of Cairo, with narrow streets and latticed balconies from which the secluded wives can take a peek at the outside world without being seen. The family consists of the patriarch, Ahmad, his wife and five children, some grown, from two marriages. Ahmad is a wealthy shopkeeper and devout Muslim – more in theory than in practice, for he drinks, frequents places of ill repute and has a string of mistresses. However, at home, he is quite the domestic tyrant, keeping his wife and daughters indoors more than even their neighbours accept as traditional. His family tremble for fear whenever they ask him for something, for they know he is inflexible, quick to anger, violent and able to punish them where it hurts most, by kicking them out of the house and leaving them penniless. Outside the house, however, he is considered amiable, humorous and charming. He seems completely unaware of the hypocrisy of this stance, and indeed revels in doing the exact opposite of what his family asks him to do, even if he himself agrees with them, for fear that he might lost his position of dominance.

The five ‘children’ in the household are: Yasin ‘with the body of a bull and the elegance of a peacock’, Ahmad’s son from his first marriage, a civil servant in his early twenties; nineteen-year-old law student Fahmy and the happy-go-lucky schoolboy Kamal, the only one who can move easily between the feminine and masculine worlds. The two daughters are sixteen-year-old Aisha, famed for her blonde hair and blue eyes (unusual in Egypt and therefore much prized), and sharp-tongued Khadija, who at the age of twenty already considers herself an old maid and is afraid she will never get married because of her big nose.

Their mother Amina is the most docile, obedient and caring person you can imagine – downtrodden, yes, but by no means a one-dimensional character. She is devoted to her children, but is also keen to better herself. Her learning is largely limited to the Koranic verses that her youngest child teaches her while she in turn passes on old legends and stories, but she also enjoys discussing national and international political issues with her sons, in a naïve way, admittedly, because her husband does not believe women should be well-informed. As she tends her roof garden, she repeats a little prayer which I think encapsulates perfectly her gentle nature, wanting to please everyone:

God, I ask you to watch over my husband and children, my mother and Yasin, and all the people: Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord, but drive them from our land as a favor to Fahmy, who does not like them.

We follow the daily schedule of the family, including their much loved afternoon coffee gathering with all the siblings teasing each other, but there is no shortage of larger events happening over the course of the two years or so covered by the story. People fall in and out of love and lust, get married and, in some cases, divorced, and reconnect with their past. Yasin makes some sort of peace with his mother, whom he despises for daring to disobey his father, moving away and then constantly remarrying and divorcing. Fahmy the idealist is forbidden from marrying the neighbour’s daughter, and gets involved in the pro-independence movement. And even gentle Amina ventures outside the house to visit a mosque but is promptly punished by her husband.

However, the family story mirrors the political situation, with the sons in particular expressing increasing rebellion towards their domestic tyrant. For example, Yasin discovers his father enjoys the dissolute lifestyle just as much as he does and consequently starts losing his respect for him. At first he argues with his father mostly in his head, while his mouth utters the words their father wants to hear. As the author says in a different part of the book, this is a family that has learnt to hide things all too well.

‘As you wish,’ Yasin thought, ‘Who has ever gone against your wishes. You marry me and divorce me. You give me life and take it away. I don’t really exist… We’re nothing. You’re everything. No, there’s a limit. I’m no longer a child. I’m just as much a man as you are. I’m the one who is going to decide my destiny.’

But what he actually says is merely: ‘Whatever you want, Father’.

Gradually, however, these small rebellions multiply and grow, until Fahmy joins the freedom fighters in secret, very much against his parents’ wishes. He does so because he knows his mother worries his life might be in danger, but his father has a rather hypocritical attitude toward Egyptian independence too – or perhaps an attitude that many of us will find familiar when it comes to giving money to charities:

… he had been content to limit his patriotism to an emotional and psychic participation, not taking any action that might have altered the life he enjoyed so much… He had never even taken the trouble to go to one of their rallies. Would that not have been a waste of his precious time? The nation did not need his time, and he was eager to have every minute of it to spend on his family, on his business, and especially on his amusements with his friends and chums. Thus his time was reserved for his own life, and the nation was welcome to a share of his heart and emotions. It was easier to part with money than time.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story, other than that Ahmad learns he cannot control everything quite as much as he wants. It reminded me very strongly of Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Rather pulpy looking Arabic edition, from 1988.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists. It introduced me to a part of the world, a culture and a historical period that I knew very little about. Although I keep saying that I am not that keen on family sagas, as with Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and have promptly ordered the next two volumes in the trilogy, albeit in a different edition (even if it spoils the symmetry on my bookshelf).

May Reading: Two Books from Lebanon

This post might also be called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, featuring two writers, one male and one female, one living in Lebanon, the other abroad, who both use oral storytelling as a narrative device and blend personal stories with political ones, trying to explain what is inexplicable, or at least give us a flavour of what it might be like to go through such difficult times. Neither of these books are easy to read, despite what the jaunty cover of the second one might indicate, but they are worthwhile, well-written and thought-provoking.

Elias Khoury: White Masks, transl. Maia Tabet, Maclehose Press. (Originally published in 1981, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon)

An apparently banal murder of a man in his fifties, left on a rubbish tip in Beirut: Khalil Ahmad Jaber represents everyman – wife, family, two married daughters, a son who fought in the civil war and has been proclaimed a ‘martyr’. Prior to his body being discovered, disappeared for three weeks. The story is narrated by a journalist who tries to investigate the case – and speaks to his widow, his daughter, the neighbour (an engineer who seems reasonably interested in the widow), widow of the caretaker of the block of flats who seems to have had a relationship with the deceased, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militiaman who was involved in the interrogation of Khalil, his daughter, the doctor who performed the autopsy.

Each account gives of course a very different view of the troubled personality of the dead man, seeks to justify their own part in his downfall, but also show how preoccupied they are with their own lives. The narrative gives the feeling of interview transcripts, messy, slipping easily from present to past and back again, going off on tangents. Perhaps in keeping with the oral storytelling tradition of the region.

Finally, the journalist narrator’s voice comes back in at the end of the book, to almost chide himself for picking such a ‘small’ subject to ‘entertain, please and pass the time’ (surely an irony, as he succeeds in doing almost exactly the opposite – cause anxiety, worry and confuse us). He sums it up as one small tragedy among so many that are being played out daily.

Is the identification of the murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime? I don’t think so… It was not for lack of trying… I spent months investigating and reading to try and establish the facts.. So now, dear reader, you too may feel as bewildered as I do. Faced with the impossibility of discovering the truth, you must doubt, as I do, the reported incident itself, as well as people’s accounts. I am sure one of those clever literary critics is going to say that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I can just hear him saying, ‘But surely Beirut is just like any other city, full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, going to work, eating, sleeping, having sex, having children, dying, celebrating festivals buying chocolate egss, sugared almonds, and maa’moul.’ While all of that is true, I do not know how one can reconcile that assertion with my story.’

The book is troubling in its portrayal not only of the ‘artistic truth’, which is in the eye of the beholder, as we have seen in Rashomon and many other instances, but also in its political implications, namely that the truth is no longer valued. Arriving at even an approximation of the truth is no longer attempted and you can trust no one. A weary, cynical view of partisanship and a necessary indictment of all sides in a conflict.

Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost, transl, Marilyn Booth, Oneworld Publications. Initially published in Arabic in 2017

Barakat perhaps represents the next generation of Lebanese, who never knew the country before constant civil war drove them into exile. She has been living in France for quite a while now, so it comes as no surprise that her novel reflects the stories of those who left a country torn by war (it could be Lebanon or any other country in the Middle East or North Africa, or several different ones). Six individuals are trying to make new lives for themselves somewhere abroad, but they are also looking back towards their home, their family and their past, writing letters to the ones they left behind… letters which never reach their destination, but are found by the next letter-writer in the chain. Despite the cheery-looking cover and the more modern tone, the six stories in this novel also weave a dark and troublesome story of displacement, hopes quashed, struggling to be accepted and treated as an equal and living in poverty and uncertainty. At times, it feels like letter writers are their own worst enemies, as they make dangerous or foolish or bad choices – or at least, that’s how we would judge them at a distance, in the comfort of our own settled lives. But who knows how we might act if we were in similar situations, with the personal, familial and historical social burden weighing upon us?

The conceit of letter-writing (after all, who still writes letters nowadays, would they not be more likely to call or send messages via phone) also gives a very immediate, oral storytelling quality to the book. The letters are found in those public liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither old home nor new country: hotels, airports, planes. They never reach their intended destination, but towards the end of the book, we see how the intended recipients might respond to them (or at least to the people who wrote them). At the same time, the author makes us the readers question how we might respond if we were to encounter these people. None of the people presented here are ‘nice’ or ‘worthy’ refugees – they are prickly, egoistic, pitiful, performative, trying to justify the horrible things they did in the past, often downright nasty. The whole gamut of human experience, because anyone can become a displaced individual. But they are not just individuals who make bad choices, they are also victims of their place of birth, their culture and upbringing, the historical and social circumstances.

There are both shocking moments and so many poignant and wistful details in each of these stories. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes:

Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

Another voice says the following in a letter to her mother:

If a mother doesn’t love her daughter, then who will she love in this world? Mother, why did you change so much as you got older? Didn’t I obey you enough?… I know that you loved me when I was a child. And then the world treated you harshly. The hardships accumulated, as they did for me, and the bitterness of it all weighed on your heart. This is what life does to us, how it determines things. Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds.

This book provides such a powerful, uncompromising look at people on the margins of society:

These people see no one and no one sees them. Any attempt to infiltrate the world beyond that wall ends in catastrophic, violent repulsion, like the meeting of two substances whose magnetic charges repel each other. Two worlds, completely cut off from each other, two languages whose codes are mutually undecipherable, unreadable in whichever direction you try to read them.

How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them and which things harden?

I was too busy at work this month to get much reading done, so these two will be my only two books from Lebanon, but they certainly provided an intriguing insight into a different culture and literary style. My last book in the May reading of translated Arabic literature will be Egyptian: Palace Walk, which deals with far less recent history.

How to Befriend a Language: Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021.

As soon as I heard about this book, I was pretty sure I was going to love it – and it has certainly not disappointed me! It is a book about the encounter with a foreign language and culture, so it feels like an anthropological study (which, as you know, I love). Like any modern and honest anthropological study, it also reveals things about the ‘participant observer’. And, above all, it is about Japan, which was the country that delighted, puzzled, intrigued and infuriated me at roughly the same age that Polly Barton went there to teach English and started learning Japanese. But I am finding it really hard to review, without simply piling on one quote after another, exclaiming ‘That’s exactly how I felt too!’ and urging you to read it.

I’d already read several of Polly Barton’s translations of Japanese women writers and attended a Borderless Book Club in which she talked about the translation of Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, so I knew she was both thoughtful and fearless as a reader and translator. This certainly carries through to this book, with very candid (but purposeful) descriptions of her personal life at the time. What I did not know was that she originally studied philosophy and had a passion for Wittgenstein, but, looking back now, Wittgenstein is exactly what I had in mind even before I started reading this. In my own student days, I used to proudly cite Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, claiming that the world around me does not exist if I cannot find the words to describe it.

What a monumental ego I must have had then! In some ways, Barton’s book is all about reducing that ego down to size. It certainly describes all the emotions and fears that I went through, although I was seldom that honest with even myself, let alone with others.

The concept behind the book is simple yet extremely effective: it’s a love story. How Polly Barton fell in love with the Japanese language (initially through falling in love with a Japanese man), told via fifty Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetics which describe various moments or states of mind during this journey. Like any love story, the journey is not straightforward and there are moments of confusion, misery and near-hatred (as well as enchantment, pride and euphoria). It is very personal ‘felt experience’, as the author tells us from the very start, unscientific and ‘unashamedly subjective’. Yet to this reader, who had a very similar experience with Japan and its language, it feels like she touches upon true universals of language-learning:

‘…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Onomatopoeia are much more widely used in Japan than anywhere else, both verbally and in writing, and are not considered childish. I have selected a few of the ‘sounds’ which spoke to me most, and how the author interprets them (I should add that her ‘translations’ of the onomatoepia are quite loose, and more linked to what she wants to narrate or describe, rather than the generally accepted meaning, so I’m adding the dictionary meaning next to it).

Nobi nobi = the sound of space (to feel relaxed, to be at ease)

The initial stages of being immersed in a foreign culture are all about that sense of ‘freedom from the known’. Although Barton recognises that it can be problematic to see the country you are moving to as ‘a blank canvas for your personal growth’, she also admits that she felt a real sense of liberation from judgement, from the constructs and obligations that we have absorbed together with our mothertongue. A chance to reinvent oneself, to start afresh.

Mecha kucha = the sound of a truly mixed tool-bag (disorderly, chaotic, higgledy-piggledy)

This refers to the mixed, often hostile reaction of Anglophones to the way that Japanese have imported (and misused) English words into their language. Although in theory Barton understood that you couldn’t just assume that other languages have the same associations with the words as you do, it was a difficult journey to acceptance and she often felt like a fraud, some kind of linguistic tyrant, waving the flag of multiculturalism, while the inner brat was fuming:

It transpired that it required a considerable largeness of spirit to accept the way that these imported words were wielded with little consideration for their original usage and belonged to an entirely different web of associations to those they had in English… Nobody understood you , or had any interest in understanding you.

Koro koro = the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor (small round object rolling or tumbling)

This was one of the most relatable sections. Polly Barton starts by saying she no longer believes that there is only one correct translation of anything, that it’s all about the context and our own familiarity with it. There is no simple direct equivalent for every word from French, for example, into English. This raises the question of those who are bilingual or trilingual – if each language perceives reality differently, are we actually slightly different people when we speak different languages? Are we being too chameleonic, are we losing our authenticity if we do that, or as the author puts it, are we ‘spineless and unfaithful’? I know that I speak with a higher pitch and act more cute in Japanese, gesticulate more and use a deeper voice when I speak Romanian, am both naughtier (with swear words) and more thoughtful in German, sound more grown-up in French. Unlike Polly Barton, I never consciously examined these differences or worried about them, but it certainly drew an ‘aha’ of recognition from me.

The author, photo credit: Michael Troy Judd, from Japan Times

Mote mote = the sound of being a small-town movie star (sexy, popular, well-liked)

The author notes that almost every Western person going to Japan (who is visually identifiable as non-Japanese), especially in a rural setting, is gawped at and admired, although ultimately they keep you at arm’s length. You have to learn not to let it go to your head.

As Japan holds you up, tells you how adorable, glamorous, exotic, unprecedented you are, it is also telling you even as it reaches towards you.. that you are unreachable. It needs you to be unreachable. It needs you to be on the outside. It requires your alienation in order to better admire you…

This is even more so the case in China (where people ask to take selfies with you on the street, especially if you are blonde or have blue or green eyes). However, the Japan I encountered as a Romanian was quite different: there was a decided sniff of superiority, of making you aware that you were far inferior (and I can imagine that is the case for black people too). Well-disguised under multiple layers of politeness, but still perceptible. For me, it seems that the Japanese want to keep themselves unreachable, safely on the inside.

There is a certain ambivalence to how the Japanese feel about the Anglophone (especially American) foreigners, which goes right back to the 19th century (the threatening Black Ships of Commodore Perry) and of course the post-war American occupation, and later in the book Polly speaks almost enviously of the white male Anglophone privilege of the anime lovers turned Japan experts. Perhaps the only people who can feel truly at home in Japan are those who remain blissfully unaware of this ambivalence, who are so secure in their self-confidence and self-belief that another culture cannot shake them or make them feel rejected.

Uda uda = the sound of the wild bore (going on and on, talking nonsense, idling away time)

This was another very funny and self-deprecating section, describing how the author felt when she returned to the UK and started finding the division between Japan and the rest of her life harder to maintain, eventually losing ‘the ability to converse about anything that didn’t relate to Japan’. I’m sure that all of us who have lived abroad for a long time have experienced this when ‘returning home’ and have been disappointed that those who stayed home are not really interested in our tales of adventure in foreign lands.

I knew that people around me didn’t have any particular interest in what for them was just one far-away country of many… I could hear in my head how ridiculous my voice sounded as it began every sentence: “In Japan”… I felt that somewhere along the way I’d lost my right to have an opinion because I was now so badly informed about things back home… I wasn’t the bridge between cultures of which everyone blithely spoke; I was someone bobbing helplessly on the sea… there are still times when I worry that my conversation is like a radio stuck on a single channel: that not only am I a one-trick pony of a person, but my trick is an obscure one which confounds rather than delights.

I’ll stop here, for fear that I will just copy out the entire book. I think you can tell how much I loved it! There is so much food for thought here, not just for anyone who has ever lived abroad, or tried to learn a foreign language. It is such a rich, nuanced look at creating and recreating your personal identity, trying to fit in and learning to live with difference. It is funny, clever, creative and an utter delight!

As an extra bonus, I’d like to include a link to a magazine Monkey featuring two stories by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton.

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.

May Reading: The Book of Cairo

I’m not quite sure what to call my May reading challenge (although that sounds like it is a burden, so maybe May reading plan is more accurate), which comprises books from Egypt and Lebanon. Maybe my Arabic Reading Plan (but that sounds much more grandiose and all-encompassing)? Middle Eastern? That instantly brings to mind conflict, sadly, and, while it’s true that quite a few of the books translated into English from these regions address themes of war, violence, civil war and so on, this is not necessarily what the writers from these two countries write about exclusively or even predominantly.

Fantastic cover, as always, by Comma Press (design: David Eckersall)

So we should be grateful for Comma Press for their more varied and nuanced perspective on Egypt. The Book of Cairo was published in 2019 and features ten contemporary Egyptian authors writing about one of the largest and most diverse cities on the African continent (and ten different translators, which makes this an even more interesting chorus of voices). There are references to the Arab Spring movement from 2011-2013 and the ‘enforced state of forgetfulness’ that followed, but these do not make up the majority of the stories, and the references are hinted at rather than explicit. Each of the stories talks about a city in constant change and turmoil, in all its chaotic, noisy, messy resilience. Above all, it is a portrait of the charming, infuriating, eccentric inhabitants, the people who are the lifeblood of the city.

Most of the stories are very short, but they pack a lot in, and are often told in an inventive style rather than a very linear, traditional way. For example, the first story in the volume, ‘Gridlock’ by Mohamed Salah al-Azab (transl. Adam Talib) depicts a traffic jam, which is an everyday occurence in Cairo, but skillfully weaves together six different points of view in a deadpan, present-tense description that romps through timelines like a bulldozer. The loss of reputation of a surgeon via the rumour mill (and a very deliberate dig at social media) is handled in a dialogue bordering on the absurd in the story ‘Talk’ by Mohammed Kheir (transl. Kareem James Abu-Zeid). The author imagines the job title of ‘fabricator of rumours’, who explains his mission thus:

“…you think all those rumours sprouted up out of thin air?… The true rumour, if I may be permitted the expression, must resemble its target, must touch something within that target… A rumour is only complete if there’s a reaction… immortality within our profession: a respectable conspiracy theory, one that stands the test of time.’

Very funny, but also making the reader wince at its truthfulness, like all good satire.

Some of the oblique, surreal storytelling felt very familiar – reminiscent of 20th century writers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union doing their best to avoid censorship. There is a lingering sense of unease and menace about these type of stories. ‘Into the Emptiness’ by Hassan Abdel Mawgoud (transl. Thoraya El-Rayyes) shows a narrator gradually losing his grip onto reality – his own lived-in experience seems to be the exact opposite of what the people around him believe is happening. His sense of identity is dissolving as surely as the sugar cubes in his tea.

Then there is the more overtly political story of the Major obsessed with finding out the Truth, by whatever means, to ‘safeguard the nation’s youth’, in ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ by Nael Eltoukhy (transl. Raph Comack):

…it is true that this physical interrogation is not strictly legal and it is also true that Major Haitham Hamdy does sometimes resort to it. But we should also say, firstly, that this does not poison the entire police apparatus, which is renowned for its courage and humanity, nor, secondly, does it even poison Major Haitham Hamdy himself, who may have personal flaws like any human being and, like any human being, may sometimes be overcome by these flaws. Major Haitham Hamdy was a human to his core, we have already seen how he fasts, how he enjoys intellectual pursuits and how his mind wanders like everyone else’s. So it’s no surprise that every day and night after reading the morning and afternoon reports, he repeats this phrase: ‘I am a corrupt officer but I do not represent my colleagues… I am one man. I am the exception. I am extraordinary. I am outside the herd.’

But it’s not all about offices, politics and the busy city streets. Several of the stories are about shifting perceptions of gender and modern relationships in present-day Egypt. ‘The Other Balcony’ is a charming depiction of the narrow streets of Cairo, with windows allowing almost too much intimacy with one’s neighbours. ‘The Soul at Rest’ is about an obituary for a belly dancer and how she is both admired but also despised by those around her. ‘Siniora’ is about a long-term on-off affair, where the woman gains the upper hand and demonstrates her superiority both in business and love.

These are tales of the unexpected, which toy with you and introduce you to a new world. I would perhaps have liked to see the inclusion of a few longer stories or a wider range of dates when the stories were written, but it would be churlish not to be grateful for this brief introduction into the great variety of authors writing in (or about) Egypt today. Thank you to Comma Press for tackling lesser-known cities and providing us with such an enticing literary travel guide.

Culture Clash: The Wife Who Wasn’t by Alta Ifland

I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)

The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:

He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.

But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:

It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!

You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:

Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!

There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.

After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.

The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.

Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.

This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.

There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.

Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.

There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.

To the Lighthouse (on its birthday)

I’m rather smitten with this book cover for To the Lighthouse, designed by Marimekko designer Aino-Maija Metsola

On this day in 1927, the Hogarth Press published the book regarded by many as Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse. In her diary, Virginia pretends to be unconcerned.

Book out. We have sold (I think) 1690 before publication – twice Dalloway. I write however in teh shadow of the damp cloud of the Times Lit Sup. review… I am anxious about Time Passes. Think the whole thing may be pronounced soft, shallow, insipid, sentimental. Yet, honestly, don’t much care; want to be let alone to ruminate.

Yet a few days later, she admits:

What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas… some people say it is my best book… much more nearly a success, in the usual sense of the word, than any other book of mine.

The reason for its success might be that it strikes the perfect balance between a more conventional type of narrative at that time (a reasonably well-off and artistic family on holiday, with assorted guests, little intrigues, character portraits) with the lyrical beauty of Woolf’s prose, as well as those glimmers of insights both superficial and profound, both daily routine matters and startling thoughts that can utterly change or shape our lives.

Far from being sentimental, the Time Passes section of the book is a prose poem tour de force, perhaps the best description of the relentless march of time that I have ever seen captured on paper. People marry, grow old, are born, die, wait and hope, give up. Nature takes over the house. There is sadness but also a strange beauty in that decay:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the rifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed… Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. The swallows nested in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoiseshell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass… while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.

To the Lighthouse has always been in my ‘second circle’ of Virginia Woolf works, i.e. not my absolute top favourites (the diaries, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas and The Waves represent that), but amongst those that I really enjoy and rate highly (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room), certainly ahead of the third circle, which I like least of her efforts, but still rate much more highly than other people’s writing (her short stories, mostly). However, after this most recent reread, I think I will elevate it to the innermost circle. Perhaps it’s a time of life thing: I am much more open to the melancholy beauty of this book when I am of a similar age as VW when she wrote it.

The characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay is so subtle. In my youth, I hastily labelled him as a domestic tyrant, and her as a wonderful, loving, giving goddess. But the truth is much more complex than that.

Mrs Ramsay is beautiful and sweet, true, but the way she lavishes attention on all those fragile masculine egos and downplays the needs of the women and girls around her (other than to try and arrange possible romances and marriages for them) indicates she is too wedded to the gender division of both labour and expectations of her time. There is both triumph and sadness in the way she finds creativity in running a household and arranging a perfect dinner table. And yet we catch flashes of her intelligence and wit, and her wonderfully human and humane reflections, her perception of life as a wily adversary, for instance:

She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed… there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.

Meanwhile, Mr Ramsay can be quite hateful, but there is also something pitiful in his desperate need to be loved, admired, flattered, in the way he feels ‘time’s winged chariot’ just behind him – forever ready to hound him, and his need to leave a legacy (and possibly well-grounded fear that he won’t). While he hasn’t yet acquired that self-awareness that makes the lead character in the Kurosawa film Ikiru change so dramatically, he fills me with sadness just like that character, because of his inability to truly connect with others. He is ultimately a very lonely figure, but a truly infuriating one:

What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hope are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness… one that needs, above all, courage, truth and the power to endure.

Of course, Lily Briscoe was the character I most identified with as a girl, partly because of her antipathy towards marriage, but mostly because of her thoughts about painting, about trying to capture a mood, a thought, a landscape, a character in her painting (and failing), which is really Virginia musing about the writing process. But, just like the other characters, the older Lily looks back and muses about life in general:

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark… In the midst of the chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at hte clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

There is something of the great Russian novelists about the way Virginia Woolf gets her characters to wonder about the big fundamental questions in life, although the way they approach them are very different. The Russians spar in dialogues (or alternate lengthy monologues), while in Woolf the most important things remain unsaid, are only hinted at, and even the thoughts going through people’s heads are like fleeting clouds, until you are almost unsure if you have seen the moments of clarity and brightness or not.

Well, there I was wondering what I could possibly say about To the Lighthouse that hasn’t been said before – and the truth is, nothing of what I’ve said is new. But the fact that it remains a much-loved classic (hopefully, not just by reputations, but actually frequently read) gives me hope that there are sufficient discerning readers out there in the world.

#1936Club: Liviu Rebreanu

OK, I’m cheating a little here, because I read several works by Rebreanu, yet none of them were published exactly in 1936. Here are the books I’ll be referring to in this post:

  • Jar (usually translated as ‘Embers’, although I’d argue that it should be ‘Blaze’) – 1934 – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young girl
  • Ciuleandra – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young man (so an interesting counterpoint) – 1927 [Available now in English translation thanks to Gabi Reigh and Cadmus Press]
  • Amândoi (Both) – crime novel – 1940

However, there’s another connection with Sebastian, which makes the connection to my previous #1936Club entry a bit more plausible. Sebastian interviewed Rebreanu and expressed great admiration for his writing, but they weren’t really close, and at some point Sebastian expressed disappointment at the anti-semitic attitude displayed during the war by Rebreanu, which he wouldn’t have expected from the author of the novella Itzik Shtrul, Desertor, dating from 1919, which showed great empathy and understanding towards the eponymous Jewish hero of the story. However, it is also true that Rebreanu used his war-time position as the Director of the National Theatre during the war (from 1940 until his death in 1944) to allow Leny Caler to continue performing, albeit only at the Jewish theatre, so his attitude is a little complicated, perhaps merely opportunistic.

Whatever he might have been like in this personal life, in his works Rebreanu is almost always solidly behind the underdog. His versatility and range in terms of subject matter are quite impressive. During Communist times when we studied him in school, he was particularly admired for the social critique and description of rural life in Ion (1920) and Răscoala (The Revolt – about the peasant revolt in Romania in 1907) (1932). I personally always preferred his stories of inner turmoil and psychological torment, such as The Forest of the Hanged and Ciuleandra. I had never previously read Jar and Both, although I have the special edition published in 1985, marking the centenary since his birth.

My father was always rather keen on Rebreanu because he spent quite a bit of his life and actually died in Argeș, the county my family originates from. Ciuleandra, the title of the book, has not been translated, because it is actually the name of a dance which is particularly popular in that region, which starts slow and then gets faster and faster, until it all descends into an orgasm of colour, passion and sensuality. This is how it is described in the book:

It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained. The dancers gather, form a circle… Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder. The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy… As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos… The ring of dancers, daring themselves to defy and smother the music’s spell, charge at it, feet crushing into dirt, and the tornado of flesh twists into itself again, tighter, more stubborn, clenching and loosening, until, finally the bodies melt into each other…

It is at one of these country dances, under the immediate heat of the ciuleandra, that Puiu Faranga meets the pretty, extremely young peasant girl Mădălina. Puiu comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, who think France is the epitome of culture and speak French at home much like the Russian aristocracy in novels. His father is a former government minister, but worried his son might end up living a life of debauchery, and decides a girl of healthy peasant stock is just the kind of red-blooded addition his family needs. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s protests, her mother seems quite keen to sell her off to the Faranga family. But first she has to be modelled into the perfect wife for Puiu: Mădălina is cleaned up, educated, groomed, sent to finishing school and becomes the taciturn, mysterious Madeleine, fêted by posh Bucharest society for her beauty. Puiu claims to be madly in love, but continues with his decadent lifestyle and multiple mistresses. He is, needless to say, very controlling and jealous of his wife, whose essence seems to escape him. And then, one night, as they get ready to go a royal ball, he strangles her in a fit of passion. There is nothing a man fears more than being laughed at by a woman, right?

His father wants to avoid a public trial and prison sentence for his beloved son, so of course he intervenes and commits Puiu to a private mental asylum under the supervision of a pet doctor. However, the pet doctor is abroad, and instead the psychiatrist working with Puiu is a young village boy made good, who is not at all ‘flattered that a Faranga has deigned to shake his hand’. On the contrary, he thinks Puiu may be faking his madness. Nevertheless, his treatment sparks something in Puiu, a journey of reflection and reckoning. He very gradually moves from a position of loathsome swagger and privilege to realising his own flaws.

… He grew ashamed of the time before, when he had been entirely self-absorbed; when all that exercised his mind had been how to get out of a tight corner, through subterfuge, connections, any means possible; when his greatest pain had been the thought of having to renounce his life’s pleasures for a while. Only a few days earlier, he had barely spared a thought for Madeleine, whose life he had extinguished, as she lay in the chapel waiting to be buried… There had been no heartfelt, deep repentance…

Although this falls into the set of Rebreanu’s novels labelled ‘psychological’, the social commentary is quite strong. This is not just a love story gone wrong, but very much a critique of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how the rich believe they can buy everything, even genuine feelings, with their money. The innate warmth of the people from the countryside is contrasted to the coldness of urban society, especially that of the upper classes. Puiu learns about forbearance from his guard, Andrei Leahu (who incidentally comes from the same village as some of my father’s family, and therefore automatically qualifies as one of my favourite characters), who suffered a real betrayal by his wife during the war, and yet did not kill her despite his rage.

What is interesting in this story is that, although the story revolves around Mădălina, we never get to hear her point of view. How did she feel about being plucked out of her familiar environment at a young age and being Pygmalioned without any chance of escape? No, the story is all told by men: Puiu, his father, his doctor, his guard, the prosecutor, the superintendant (his aunt is a woman, but she is all about family pride and keeping things under wraps). The poor young woman was merely an object to them, and she has been comprehensively silenced.

As a brief taster for this dance, I’m including a link to a video, not necessarily the best dancing or the highest-quality filming, but simply because it is in a village community, being danced by girls who are of similar age to Mădălina in the book.

Just in case you thought that Rebreanu sympathised with that macho point of view, the novel Jar is the counterpoint to that, presenting a love story from the point of view of a young, intelligent woman, Liana. She lives with her extended family: her father is a petty civil servant who constantly fears for his position (and would dearly love a promotion), her mother is not well-educated and spoils her younger son rotten, her grandmother just wants to see Liana married. Meanwhile, Liana herself aspires to be an independent career woman and move out, like her older brother. At her annual ‘non-birthday’ party, she meets the pilot Dandu Victor, who starts courting her with almost stalkerish intensity. Liana succumbs to his charms, but the love affair is short-lived and ends tragically. Throughout, we are mostly in Liana’s head, conflicted as she is between her intellectual aspirations and the instincts of the heart and lust. Once again, Rebreanu manages to seamlessly set a love story against the fresco of Bucharest society of that period, populated with well-rounded and recognisable characters from all social classes: the fatuous wannabe poet who is only ‘playing at’ journalism, the middle-aged state functionaries fearing for their jobs, the older rake who now craves a more settled lifestyle, the widow of a former minister who flatters herself she still has some influence and so on.

Amândoi is a more straightforward crime novel, but it too has a strong social element to it. Unlike in the other two novels, the action takes place in Pitești, a smaller town about a hundred kilometres from Bucharest, a bustling commercial and industrial centre, but still very much a provincial backwater (especially at that time). The two people found murdered (both of them, hence the title of the novel) may live in a ramshackle old house, but they were actually very wealthy landlords, shopkeepers and pawnbrokers. The rest of their family, a brother and sister with their respective spouses and offspring, come under suspicion, for there were some quarrels about inheritance. The judge Dolga who investigates the case (the Romanian legal system is similar to the French one in this respect, so it will be familiar to those who watch Spiral/Engrenages) is an outsider, refuses to bow down to political and social pressures to wrap up the case quickly without causing too much scandal. He is determined to get at the truth. As we follow his methodical investigation, we get a rich picture of small-town life in Romania in the 1930s, the rapaciousness of wealth, the desperation of poverty, the interaction between the different social classes, their assumptions and presumptions. I can’t help feeling the crime is just a pretext for painting this picture of a town where I spent huge chunks of my summer holidays during childhood – always a pleasure to see familiar places – but I was very disappointed when I found out who the killer was.

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Romanian literature, although I am aware only one of the above is available in translation. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time, days, often weeks, preparing these lengthy posts which so few people read. However, if I can get one person to try something new, or view Romanian literature as a more diverse and interesting landscape than is commonly believed, then I will declare myself happy.