The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.
But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.
Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.
One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.
Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?
Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room, and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:
We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.
A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.
What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…
Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.
The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).
The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’
Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.
What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.
What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.
Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’
If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).
The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.
They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.
Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.
Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.
12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.
I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan.This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.
The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.
Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.
The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.
If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…
Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.
What have I acquired this week?
I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.
I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.
At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.
However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:
By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local tourist board.
As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.
A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.
It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.
Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.
I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.
I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Loveby Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.
This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.
The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.
But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.
There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).
It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:
These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.
I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.
It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.
I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):
I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.
Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.
By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.
The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.
I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.
The first title for the just launched Asymptote Book Club arrived shortly before Christmas and it was no hardship to read it during the holidays. Argentinian writer Aira’s novels are fairly slim – this one has only 106 pages – so it is quite easy to wolf it one down in one morning. This is exactly what I did, but then (just as Roberto Bolaño predicted) I found it such an exhilarating and addictive experience that I quickly followed suit with two further Aira novels The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.
What this author misses in length (of each manuscript), he more than makes up for by sheer prolificity. He publishes on average two books a year, plus translation work, plus literary criticism. Since he started his literary career in published 70 novels, 3 short story collections and numerous essays. To quote from my current obsession, the musical Hamilton: ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Why do you write like it’s going out of style?’
Well, Aira has an answer for that in his interviews. He is using the forward propulsion motion of ‘flight forward’, because he believes that helps him to get out of the corners into which he tends to write himself. Having experienced his ‘flights of fancy’ and tangential observations, the effortless way he moves from one subject to the next unrelated one, he can only achieve that with elegance by being a butterfly. In other words, he does not go back and edit much. He prefers to allow himself to be guided by instinct. One might almost argue that he thinks aloud through his writing. He doesn’t care if the audience can follow or not, he is merely trying to clarify his own memories and impressions. There is a certain arrogance about that attitude; some critics have said that Aira is a great showman rather than a great talent.
Of course, when one is so absurdly prolific and unedited, the standard can drop at times. He has produced average books as well as outstanding ones, and sometimes you can see this uneven style within the same book: a pedestrian sentence followed by one which really stands out and makes you ponder. As soon as I finished reading The Lime Tree, I started it over again, to find my favourite stories, pages and sentences. There are so many wonderful quotes. As everyone knows, memories are notoriously unreliable and open to reinterpretation. This is a theme constantly addressed in Aira’s work, which prances playfully on a fine line between autobiography, fiction and dream-like surreal fantasy.
Are they memories or inventions? You can never really know.
It’s not the first time the author talks about his childhood in his hometown of Coronel Pringles (yes, really – this bit is not made up) near Buenos Aires. We cannot be sure how much of this is true, however, but what an enticing story he weaves! Not that there is much to describe in the way of plot: instead we have a torrent merrily rushing through the mountain landscape, finding its own parallel routes and occasionally overwhelming the inattentive reader. Those winding side-routes are sometimes far more exciting to explore than the straight ones.
I have strayed from my theme, but not too far. One never really strays beyond the possibility of return.
Despite the lack of clear narrative arc (although this book does have a shape, as it starts and finishes with the lime trees in the Plaza), the readers will never be bored if they allow themselves to follow the meandering monologue of the narrator, who manages to cover so much ground.
We find out about Argentine society during and after the Peronist era. We meet the narrator’s handsome, possibly bigamous father, who rose with Peron’s government (after his demise, Peron’s name is prohibited by decree, even in their house). He is the one who collects the flowers from the lime tree (better known in Europe as the linden tree) to make tea to cure his insomnia. His mother is small, dwarf-like and apparently grotesquely deformed, but stately and well-respected in town. He reminisces about childhood misdemeanours and silly games – many of these will make you smile. For instance, he helps out at the office of the local accountant and uses liquid chalk to write things on the shop window. The child and his parents live in a massive building, a former hotel or inn, but they only occupy one room. In fact, his father goes so far as to store his ladder under their bed, ‘as if there weren’t twenty-four empty rooms in which he could have stored it.’
Translating these verbal fireworks must be a nightmare, but Chris Andrews seems to be a seasoned hand. He has translated eleven of Aira’s works into English (the other two translators are Nick Caistor and Katherine Silver). Although I cannot read in Spanish so I cannot comment on the quality of the translation, I feel that he has done justice to the author’s rich mix of genres, styles and jargon, his linguistic virtuosity and punning.
I could go on, but I’m in danger of writing a review which is longer than the book itself. This book was unusual, charming, witty, like a late night conversation with a slightly rambling friend, who nevertheless utters some profound truths that will make you rethink your life and interpret your own childhood memories differently.
Ali has also reviewed this book on her blog, and you can read a review of another work by Aira in Asymptote Journal. Like Javier Marias, this is a writer that I want to explore in more detail.
So a real winner from the Book Club and I am looking forward to my January read (which hasn’t arrived yet). If you think you might like to join the Book Club before the next book goes out, here are the details.