#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

One of Us, One of Them

Two unplanned reads, which fit neither into my #WITMonth nor in my #20BooksofSummer. Instead, they were an impulse loan from the library. Although they are very different: one written in 1932, the other in 2020, they both address (indirectly or directly) the issue of class and prejudice, insiders/outsiders in British society.

Graham Greene: Stamboul Train

This was one of Greene’s lighter reads or ‘entertainments’, which he wrote with the stated hope of having it adapted for film (which happened soon after in 1934). In other words, he very cynically set out to write a bestseller, full of action and aventure, plot-heavy, but with enigmatic, beguiling characters. Of course, this being Greene, he couldn’t resist bringing in issues of success and belonging, guilt and failure into the story.

The plot itself is pretty simple: a disparate group of passengers get on the Orient Express from Ostend to Istanbul, a journey which took several days back in the early 1930s. As they collide both physically and metaphorically on the train, some of them will find their lives changed forever, while others end up none the wiser or better. The good do not always get what they deserve, nor do the wicked get punished.

The insider/outsider theme is particularly strong, with constant disparaging references made to ‘the Jew’ Carleton Myatt, the richest man on that train, who is on his way to Istanbul to check into a possible problem of fraud in the family business. I found the frequency of him being singled out slightly distressing, although one might argue that Greene is showing how easily people revert to stereotypes (nowadays he might have included a black man). Other passengers too are outsiders in their own, perhaps less obvious way: the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren and her bisexual, opportunistic companion Janet Pardoe; the Cockney travel writer Quin Savory who likes to drop his aitches ostentatiously and diss the modernist Bloomsbury set; the tight-lipped schoolmaster Richard John, who seems to have a very strong foreign accent (and is in fact a Serbian revolutionary); the fat Austrian burglar who gets on the train in Vienna and is prepared to do anything to avoid being caught by the police. None of them really fit the profile of the quintessential Englishman, except perhaps the melancholy Anglican priest attracted to Catholicism Opie or the lascivious Mr Peters who doesn’t let the small detail of travelling with his wife get in the way of groping other women.

There is a sneer and a sadness about the way the characters are described which makes me think that Greene was both of his era but also critical of it. Let’s not forget that Greene was part of the establisment, from a wealthy brewer’s family, the son of a headmaster of a boarding school, but that he was bullied to the point of having a nervous breakdown. Of course, virtually all of the categories of people he describes on that train journey were soon to be persecuted within the Third Reich.

Musa Okwonga: One of Them

This book is partly a memoir about growing up black in the United Kingdom, but mostly about being one of the few black scholarship students at Eton College. Okwonga’s family were refugees from the civil war in Uganda in the 1970s. His father died during the war, his mother worked very hard as a doctor to support her five children and teaches them to keep their head down, work twice as hard as everyone else and fit right in. She fully supports her son’s decision to go to Eton, even though it will take two years of prep school to get there and it is a struggle for her to pay even the 50% of the tuition fees required.

Although the author proves to be both clever enough and sporty enough to do well at Eton (and is lucky in being assigned to a house with a more diverse student body and a decent house master), his outsider status allows him to see both the advantages and the flaws of private schools like Eton. It was a quick, easy read, but some of the quotes really stuck with me, so I am sharing a few with you:

I think a great deal about the English concept of fair play: the idea that there are some things that are simply not done. The older I get, the more I wonder how much that concept was created to keep people of a certain social class in their place. I look at the most confident people in my year and I realise that the greatest gift that has been bestowed upon them is that of shamelessness. Shamelessness is the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes. While so many other people in the country are hamstrung by the deference and social embarrassment they have been taught since birth, the upper classes calmly parade on through the streets and boardrooms to claim the spoils. They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, but this is where they perfect it.

This is why so many people who grow up in environments of such comfort can be so unsympathetic to those who don’t. They simply have no concept of a society where, even if people work their very hardest, everything can still fall apart for the majority of them. They have been raised in a realm where every personal downfall is self-inflicted – a wealthy kid caught with drugs… The idea that you can simply be overhwelmved by your circumstances is utterly alien to them.

Almost every schoolfriend whom I have seen express a political view on social media has been Conservative. And why wouldn’t they be? This world works for them just as it is. It provides them with living standards and a basic level of comfort that are unimaginable to most people. Why the hell would they want to change that… You don’t have to be cruel in your daily life to enact policies with cruel effects…. So why wouldn’t many of my contemporaries vote for austerity? It’s so much easier to deprive your fellow voters if you’ve never paid careful attention to their suffering.

He talks about a certain category of pupils, the most extreme ones, known as ‘the lads’, who defy all social conventions. I think we know that the current PM was part of those.

My school never creates the lads – they arrive there with the core of their egos fully formed – but it frequently seems to end up rewarding them with some of the most senior positions in the student body… The lads have long ago worked out, or been told, that what matters is not being good-natured but achieving high office. In a system where boys are raised to be deferential to those in authority, they know that if they merely gain prestige, then personal popularity will follow.

There is some hand-wringing among his old schoolmates about Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.

How could he have become the leader? they ask, and that is perhaps the wrong question; the right question, perhaps, is how could he not? In a political system closed to all but a few, with the same few names in constant rotation and with no apparent consequences for grave failure, such an individual was eventually bound to get his change. Many of the same people apparently horrified at his coronation, and who describe him as an anomaly, mostly share his world view; it is just that he is less polite about it. The prime minister may be outlandish in his speech and appearance, but he is not an outlier.

The most devastating chapter is when, years later, a friend from Eton asks the author how he coped with the racism at school. Okwango replies that there were a few people who were racist, but on the whole it wasn’t bad. The friend then disillusions him, letting him know that the racism was constant and that the people whom he considered his friends were often the worst offenders (but simply did not voice those opinions in front of him). His past happiness seems to crumble before his very eyes – this sounds familiar to all of us who suddenly heard our neighbours and friends talking about ‘those bloody foreigners’ after Brexit, but ‘of course we don’t mean you.’

I imagine the many good times I spent with them, laughing along in some of my happiest moments, and I can’t help but feel that so much of that has been shattered… It is no comfort at all to me to think that they probably did not make any of those jokes with me in mind, because to boys like them I was probably the exception that proved the rule: Yes, most black men are big and stupid, but not him: he is different, he is civilised, he is clever. I have learned in the years since that when people’s prejudice is so deep-rooted, I don’t change their minds about black people; I often just end up confirming their view of the majority.

This book should be on a reading list of those seeking to understand the cursed class system in Britain.

#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

#WITMonth: Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien

After Greenlandic youth culture and middle-school Japan, we move to a more mature milieu and slightly more touristy destination. This is also #20BooksofSummer no. 15.

Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Die Liebe im Ernstfall), transl. Jamie Bulloch

Five women in their forties in post-reunification Leipzig muse about their lives and choices, and learn how to face their future in a series of linked stories.

Paula is friends with Judith, Brida is Judith’s patient, Malika is the ex-girlfriend of Brida’s ex-husband, and Jorinde is Malika’s sister. Their stories are full of the difficulties and sorrows that many women experience in their lives. They soldier on, because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Paula is mourning the death of one of her children, her marriage has broken down as a result, and she hardly dares to allow herself to be happy again. Judith distrusts men and makes fun of those she meets via online dating. She pities her friends who have to put up with disobliging husbands:

Unhappiness makes you ill, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes she’s flabbergasted by the generosity of other women. How mild they are in their judgements, how gently they devote themselves to their husbands, how magnanimously they accept and overlook their weaknesses.

And yet she has moments when she realises it is difficult to be alone and regrets her decision not to have any children.

Meanwhile, Brida rather regrets her decision to have children, because she is a writer and struggles to combine motherhood with her art. She has left her husband, but still is sexually attracted to him and suffers pangs of jealousy seeing him with his new partner. She also discovers that it’s not just the children who are affecting her creativity and this passage in particular resonated with me:

Write in peace. For years that was all she wanted. Now that she has the children only half the time, only gets half of the children’s lives, half of their joys, half of their worries, the words won’t flow. Now that joint custody… has given her the freedom to work undisturbed, the source has dried up.

Malika still mourns the end of her relationship, and feels she would have been a much more suitable wife to Brida’s ex – and a better mother. She cannot help feeling second-best in everyone’s affections, and that includes her parents, who always seem to prefer her sister Jorinde to herself. However, Jorinde, who had moved to Berlin to pursue an acting career, is far from being as successful or happy as she seems.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could quite easily have descended into a bit of a soap opera – and in fact, I have read novels where this is precisely what happened (e.g., Katherine Pancol may be a huge bestseller in France but I just could not get on with her work at all). However, Daniela Krien has a sober, restrained way with words and, although these are all women of similar age and background, they were very different in character and voice. You may be incensed at the ‘drippiness’ or ‘stroppiness’ of some of the women or roll your eyes at their bad choices, but this is not high melodrama or cloying sentimentality.

What this book: one that a whole swathe of readers will dismiss as ‘not interesting or relatable’, because it is about middle-aged women and mostly mothers (or those who wish to become mothers). However, we’ve been led to believe that men’s middle-aged crises are riveting to read about or watch on film. I am sure we can endure a little bit of a female perspective on that. I think it presents quite a kaleidoscope of female experience, and demonstrates that even in recent years and in developed countries, women’s choices are still not as easy or as wide-ranging as one might believe, even when they think they’ve made them of their own free will.

Her freedom had only ever been imaginary, time-restricted. Lke a sweet she was permitted to taste before it was taken away from her for good. For generations of women before her, life paths had been narrower, more fixed. Suddenly Brida imagined these women must have been happier, as they would never have lived under the illusion that they could shape their own lives, never felt the disappointment when all the open doors slammed shut at once. None of the constraints on their lives were their own responsibility. The circumstances hadn’t allowed for anything different. Brida, however, had made the choices herself.

The book not only looks at the gap between expectation and reality in the case of women’s lives, but there is also an undercurrent of the gap between hopes/promises and reality regarding the reunification of Germany. Did all the possibilities open up for those women in the new Germany? Not sure. This disenchantment is sometimes expressed in the conflict between the older and younger generation (for instance, between Malika and Jorinde and their parents) or between spouses, with Wessi husbands expecting housewives and stay-at-home-mothers far more than their Ossi wives.

A solid, interesting read. It didn’t quite wow the socks off me, like Julia Franck or Jenny Erpenback (or even Judith Schalansky), but it had depth beneath its easy reading surface.

P.S. The translation of the title is a bit unimaginative but does the job. The literal translation would be something like: ‘Love, Seriously’ or ‘Love in Case of Emergency’ – and ‘fall’ of course, although it means ‘case’, can also mean ‘fall’ (which explains the diver on the cover far better, since swimming features far less in the book than horseriding).

#WITMonth: No Heaven This… Mieko Kawakami

My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).

Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.

After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)

Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.

When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):

Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.

Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.

There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.

I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.

Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.

When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:

That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.

Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:

Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.

A very different cover for the hardback – which of the two do you prefer?

This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.

One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.

There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.

Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…

But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.

This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.

#WITMonth: Greenland Surprise

Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson, transl. Anna Halagar (from the Danish – the author wrote the novel in Greenlandic, then translated it into Danish herself). Also #20Books of Summer No. 13.

This short novel certainly pushed at the boundaries of what I’d previously read. I’ve never read a book by an author from Greenland (and only one set partly in Greenland, namely Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so it was venturing out into a new geographical territory. Additionally, it is a book about alcohol and partying hard and queer identity in a country which still seems largely homophobic or misogynistic, so not a familiar scene either. In fact, there was one character who turns out to be trans but seemed unaware of it until it was pointed out by someone else, and I wasn’t quite sure if that was true to life, but it left me rather uncomfortable.

The novel is narrated in five chapters, each told from a different point of view, in a very stream of consciousness style, but also in a variety of different formats: letters, diary extracts, newspaper headlines etc.  Fia is the young woman emerging from an unsatisfactory relationship with a man, who to her complete bafflement suddenly finds herself attracted to a woman. Inuk is Fia’s brother, who feels let down by his friends and spouts homophobic superstitions and insults that he has picked up from his environment. Sara and Ivik are a couple, and Sara is conflicted and confused by her instant attraction to Fia, as she wants to be loyal to her girlfriend Ivik, but Ivik herself does not seem to want to be in a sexual relationship with her. Last but not least, Arnaq is Fia’s friend and is somehow linked to all of the others, an inveterate party-goer and alcoholic, who seems to betray everyone’s confidences without any qualms.

So far, so millenial, right? Or maybe not even millenial, for these ‘finding yourself’ stories about the partying lifestyle in your early 20s have appeared in many other literary or film guises, from Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane to the TV series This Life or the more recent It’s a Sin, from Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler to the films American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. What is unique about this book is that it’s not plot driven (there are neither farcical nor grandiloquent dramatic scenes here), that it’s composed mostly of interior monologue, but above all that it takes place not in a big city – but in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland (population 18,800).

Although the young people mix Danish and English phrases into their vocabulary, compared to their counterparts elsewhere, they feel trapped on their island.

You’re on an island that will never change. You’re on an island with no way out. You’re on an island from which you can’t escape. You’re on the completely wrong island…

Out of all of them, it is Inuk who seems most aware of the gap between appearance and reality in Greenland.

You’re a Greenlander when you help develop your country… You’re a Greenlander when you respect your ancestors… You’re a Greenlander when you’re proud of your nationality…

You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic. You’re a Greenlander when you beat your partner… You’re a Greenlander when you suffer from self-loathing. You’re a Greenlander when you’re full of anger…

Our nation, she who is ancient; go to the mountain and never come back… And take your rotten children with you.

The author has quite a knack for describing the angst and failures and regrets of her generation with wry self-irony. There are some clunky passages and conversations, which could be partly the protagonists’ own awkwardness, or the author’s inexperience, or the translator struggling to convey the local feel. The book has the fast, furious pace of dance music, although it is mostly drinking rather than dancing or drugs that this group of people engage in, thinking or talking about sex rather more than actually doing it. They seem stuck in a whirlpool of repetitive, destructive behaviour, in a claustrophobic small town.

I was instantly reminded of the book See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg, where the characters are equally hell-bent on making a mess of their lives. That book was set in oil-rich Stavanger, but the characters seemed equally trapped in poverty, poor education and few viable choices. And yet, surprisingly, it is Crimson that has the more upbeat and hopeful ending, perhaps because the author is young and more optimistic. Not a masterpiece, but perhaps I am too old for this kind of novel. Still, it would be interesting to see what Korneliussen writes next.

#SpanishLitMonth (plus): Javier Marias

I’m trying to sneak in a quick non-Women in Translation review, a remnant of the Stu Jallen’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (which he has very graciously extended to August for latecomers like me).

I discovered Javier Marias and his trademark long, baroque sentences in 2016 or thereabouts, after seeing so many blogger friends praising him. I had also heard Margaret Jull Costa talk about the challenges of translating his prose (a difficulty compounded by the fact that Marias himself translates from English into Spanish). I absolutely loved A Heart So White and instantly bought several other books by him, but I stalled while reading the first part of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. So it was with some trepidation that I rediscovered him – and the hypnotic joy of reading his circuitous prose – with the novel The Infatuations.

Like many of his novels, The Infatuations has a mystery at its core, but completely and utterly pulversises any expectations we might have for crime fiction. The narrator, Maria (aka the Prudent Young Woman), has been quietly admiring an attractive couple who have breakfast every morning at the cafe where she likes to go before work. She idealises them, invents a back story for them – just like any one of us would (or perhaps just those of us who are writers).

The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time – perhaps in the same bathroom – and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they’d seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years… There was a camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.

Well, isn’t that something to aspire to? Especially if you are a woman who does not have much of a social or love life, and who is not entirely satisfied with her publishing job and demanding, egotistic authors. No wonder Maria feels bereft when her favourite couple abruptly stop coming there for several weeks. At first she thinks they might have gone on holiday, but she then discovers that the man was killed in the street on his birthday.

Shocked out of her customary reserve, Maria decides to go up to Luisa, the grieving widow, when she sees her months later at the cafe with her daughter. To her surprise, Luisa seems eager to speak to her – perhaps as a reminder of happier times, or because she has exhausted the patience of her close friends in talking about her sorrow.

That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony. And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellant… Perhaps Luisa clung to me that afternoon because with me she could be what she still was, with no need for subterfuge: the inconsolable widow, to use the usual phrase. Obsessed, boring, grief-stricken.

While visiting Luisa, Maria meets a friend of the couple, the handsome Javier Diaz-Varela, and starts a somewhat desultory affair with him. Or at least, she suspects that the affair is meaningless for him, because the one person he seems to be most concerned about is Luisa. She soon decides that he is waiting in the wings to emerge as the widow’s saviour, but she cannot help hoping that at some point he will realise that he will never win the woman of his dreams and might stay with Maria ‘out of pure inertia’.

The authors cleverly surfs between the real-life conversations that Diaz-Varela and Maria have (about characters from Balzac and Dumas, of all things!) and through the words that Maria feels he implies through his gestures, until we are no longer quite sure what is real and what is imagined. And then Maria overhears a secret conversation which makes her very suspicious indeed… a melodramatic plot twist that, interestingly, also appeared in the very next book I picked up (56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard). Needless to say, this leads to quite a dilemma, with Maria seriously grappling with issues such as truth and guilt, loyalty and love, and what constitutes justice.

A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny. The trouble with murder is that it’s always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 5 and 6: The Tribulations of Youth

What is it like to be young, sensitive, well educated but struggling to make ends meet, particularly in a big anonymous city like London in the past few years? The two recent titles on my #20BooksofSummer list address this question from a female and male ethnic minority perspective, while a bonus book that I borrowed from the library has a slightly older protagonist with one foot in Northern Ireland and another in London.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful. The prose has all the rhythm and syncopation of poetry, an idiosyncratic delight, written in second person which for once did not jar or feel pretentious.

Two highly educated, beautiful, creative young Londoners meet, become friends, fall in love: he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Her boyfriend is one of his friends at the time when they first meet. They are both still living with their parents, so it is not easy to be together in private. She returns to study in Ireland. He is traumatised by countless microaggressions because of his race – and several much more serious incidents. They hardly dare to allow themselves to fall in love, to trust each other, to hope in a common future, no matter how comfortable and safe they might feel with each other. The world around them does not feel safe or kind, especially towards him as a young black man.

You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know to love is to be a whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest. It is to place someone next to your beating heart, in the absolute darkness of your inner, and trust they will hold you close. To love is to trust, to trust is to have faith. How else are you meant to love?

The author manages to capture the universality of the exhilaration and magic of youthful love and finding your ‘soulmate’, but also brings us back to earth with a jolt, showing how abruptly this magic can be curtailed if you happen to inhabit a black body. There are certain quotes in the book which reminded me very strongly of James Baldwin (a clear influence), and which are heartbreaking in their restrained but clear anger:

You hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.

I heard the author speak at a Hay Festival event and was looking forward to reading this book – and it did not disappoint. By far the most beautiful, immersive and meaningful description of Millenial or Gen Z life that I have read, although my personal experiences have been so different in terms of age, time, place and race.

Jo Hamya: Three Rooms

I fully expected to love this book as much if not even more than Open Water, since it describes a more familiar type of experience: a young woman wandering from one rented room to another, trying to embark upon a career at least halfway worthy of her education.

… the end goal I wanted, through any job necessary, was to be able to afford a flat, not just a room, and then to settle in it and invite friends to dinner. I thought I had put reasonable effort into this desire through successive degrees while waiting for the economy to clear up enough to raise the median starting wage… Now, even to me, it seemed ridiculous to concede that I had accumulated substantial debt and a few degrees so that I might contractually labour for the sake of having two free days a week in which to cook a meal in a kitchen I could not actually afford to own…

This is basically the book in a nutshell, although the narrator is made to feel even worse because of Brexit, because of her race, because of the hostile political forces she senses all around her. She does not wish to compromise like the intern she sees at the magazine she temps for, simply for the sake of fitting in. In the Clore Gallery, looking at a room full of Turners, she realises the troubled relationship she has with her country, the patriotism fanned by BBC dramas and generic painterly landscapes, how much she wants to love it but how the news cycle tells her otherwise:

The whole thing was abstract enough in style to take on whatever you gave it; and so, though it was unmistakably English, it could have been Yorkshire, it could have been Sussex… Whatever bit of English countryside you could connect it to in your head to hold, and because the painting was a beautiful thing, with its warm tint, its heavy golden frame and its place in the airy, magnificent gallery, the country became beautiful too.

She recognises that this room (this country) does not belong to her, but neither does the country of her parents:

I was newly uncomfortable in the gallery, but I did not want to leave… Because the room I was in did not belong to me, I could not do this infintely. But for the moment I was in it at least, I had the dignity and freedom of a sense of self which belonged entirely to me. I wanted to keep it.

However, if Open Water was all heart, almost visceral in its portrayal of both joy and suffering, this book was all about the intellect and contained far too little joy. The style was reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, although with more emphasis on the first person than on other people’s stories. The political comments felt shoehorned in, undigested rather than organic.

Bonus Book: Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies

A short story collection portraying a series of young women (some of them slightly older than the protagonists of the two previous books) experiencing their own personal epiphanies, both great and small. The twilight zone of illegality for a Belfast student having to rely on drugs ordered online to end an unwanted pregnancy. A young American woman coming with her pastor and the Youth Ministry to convince voters in Ireland to ‘make the right choice’ in the vote about legalising abortion, who starts to question her own motives. Two co-workers pondering upon the unknowability of each other. However, her most relatable ones (for me at least) are about the sheer exhaustion and everyday fears of motherhood.

The author lays bare every single shred of doubt, fear, guilt, self-flagellation of mothers everywhere, but with a fresh contemporary twist. An overwhelmed mother having to leave her baby with a stranger at a cafe so that she can take her toddler for an emergency toilet break. Being alone at night in the house with small children and suddenly hearing what sounds like a possible intruder. Having to endure a long plane flight with a baby and a helpful stranger who might just make you rethink your life choices. An endless car journey with the family – and being reminded of one’s blessings.

Nothing monumental happens in most of these stories, at least not outwardly, but, as the author says in the final story, a sort of letter to her child:

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments…

I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

It might not be easy to translate those battles, but I am grateful to Lucy Caldwell for attempting it regardless.

#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.