When Peirene Press announced that it had commissioned a novel about Brexit, I could not resist getting involved and sponsoring it. Publisher Meike Ziervogel found author Anthony Cartwright, whose previous novels, although ostensibly mainly about football, also portrayed a community in decline. This is the ‘diminished community’ of the Black Country, which used to be one of the most industrialised (and therefore also one of the most polluted) areas of England, with coal mining, steelworks, glass factories and brickworks all spewing their bile into the atmosphere. Nowadays pretty much all of these industries have died and it’s become an area of boarded-up shops and high unemployment. A perfect setting, in other words, for the ‘forgotten people’ who voted for Brexit.
Cairo Jukes from Dudley is a former boxer, already a grandfather in his early forties, and supports himself though hourly work cleaning up industrial sites. His daughter Stacey-Ann has been kicked out by her mother after giving birth to a ‘coloured’ baby and now lives with her grandparents. Then Grace Trevithick turns up in their lives: posh, educated, a successful documentary maker trying to capture ‘the mood of the country’ just before the referendum.
As the two near extremes of the spectrum meet, they find out more about each other’s beliefs and ways of life. As they talk and learn to look beyond the convenient stereotypes, they begin to have a dialogue – that element which was so profoundly missing from the frenzied media hollering just before the EU referendum.
All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook.
‘I doh think they feel like they’ve lost out. They have lost out.’
‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
‘No, thass part of the problem, thinking that it is. We’m sitting in one of the places we’ve lost. You make out like it’s our problem, it’s only about how we feel, but we have lost… It’s a fact. You can prove it… The loss, actual loss. Jobs, houses, security, all them things.’
Cairo and Grace come together in a moment which feels too brief to be a love story, too steeped in misunderstandings and mismatched expectations to allow for a happy ending. But it is not just a coming together of two individuals and of what they symbolise. There are plenty of characters who dispel the notion of a monolithic Brexit voter. For every Tony ‘in his German car and his Leave sticker, in his Italian shirts, with his English attitudes’ and Romanian and Albanian workers, there is also a younger, confused Stacey-Ann who would like to improve her career prospects and feels that ‘it’s not right, all this carrying on about foreigners, people moving on to get a better life’ but at the same time considers ‘you couldn’t think people were better because they were foreign. Some people did, teachers they’d had at school. That’s just another kind of prejudice.’ For every gentle granddad mourning the lost way of life but admitting that some things are far easier nowadays, there is a table of UKIP voters handing out leaflets in an Indian restaurant.
Cartwright has a great eye for revealing details and the often ridiculous contradictions of both positions. My one criticism of the book is that the phonetic reproduction of the local dialect made it a bit hard going at times. Nevertheless, the remarkable achievement here is that the author makes it far easier to empathise with Cairo and his family, even for those of us who were avid Remainers. A timely and important book, showing us that answers are never simple, but that the only way to progress as a society is to remain open and curious about each other. And really listen.
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.
Today’s rather lengthy blog post (apologies – you may need to read it in two goes if you are in a rush) compares and contrasts two families with buried secrets: one from Norway, the other from the Netherlands. The third book I mention is not available in translation, but proves that it doesn’t take big secrets to make a family dysfunctional: sometimes the everyday grind is enough to wear one down.
Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters (transl. John Irons)
This story about siblings stuck in a shocking relationship of love and hate, and mutual dependency, has all the hallmarks of Nordic darkness and Ingmar Bergman films.
Two middle-aged sisters live together in a rickety old house in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway. Ragna is the older one and has spent nearly all of her life looking after her half-paralysed sister, the narrator. This is not an easy relationship: they takes pleasure in hurling insults and deliberately annoying each other. They are very different, not just physically: Ragna is practical, hard-working and would have liked to escape her surroundings. The younger sister (never named) finds refuge in books and the world of the imagination.
Childhood memories are tainted with petty squabbles; in adulthood, the tricks they play on each other take a really nasty turn. Ragna snatches away the breakfast before her sister has finished eating, deliberately occupies the toilet so that her sister is forced to wee on herself, even leaves her sister out in the cold to teach her a lesson.
For all of Ragna’s almost careless cruelty, we suspect that we can’t trust the first person narrator’s description either. She is convinced that Ragna and her new boyfriend Johan are trying to cart her off to a nursing home. She complains of the depravity of her older sister, but it only serves to highlight her own fear of abandonment. She plots and deceives, and knows exactly how to humiliate her sister in public. She loves twisting sentences around, till they become almost philosophical and very sinister.
Stupid cowardly Johan with his voice, forcedly good, pretends first that I am nothing, afterwards kills the crutch woman with his look.
First I the crutch woman am nothing, afterwards I kill stupid cowardly Johan, pretend nothing with my look, my voice.
The sentences just work. I’ve achieved the meaning I wanted. At last I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.
Yet she is also pitiable in her desperation. I found it heartbreaking that there were so few happy childhood memories to nourish her. There are also moments of touching self-awareness. She comments on how thin and acidic her blood has become, and how both of the sisters have become both victims and monsters.
We do not have any other choice but to remain. We are equally frightened and helpless, and cling to each other as a defence against the outside world… poor helpless us.
I’ve chosen perhaps the more explicit passages, but the beauty of this book is that most of the story is told obliquely, through the increasingly desperate interactions between the sisters, through the younger sister’s tortured ruminations:
If that’s how it really is, the marrow can only be swallowed with the mouth held close round the hollow bone shaft, and only in the deepest abyss, in the black boggy soil, can I regurgitate the confession, hold it out:
I’m the one with horns, the one with goat’s eyes.
This is a book to make those of us who never had sisters thankful for the fact. I don’t know how Peirene manages to find these very powerful and unsettling stories to translate. But I am glad they do. [Literal translation of original title: Staggering Possibilities, No Fear]
Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us (transl. Hester Velmans)
A modern housing estate on the outskirts of a small Dutch town becomes ‘suburban paradise’ to middle-class families with fathers commuting to work, frustrated mothers who feel their talent and potential has been wasted in the ‘boondocks’ and therefore take refuge in Tarot and gossip, children all born within a couple of months of each other – ready-made playmates. An unconventional family then moves into the former rectory on the old village green: young Lucy, her artist mother and their two middle-aged lodgers nicknamed the Luducos (one is Ludo, the other Duco, but they were so similar that the children were never sure which was which).
At first, the children are enchanted with Lucy, who is a born storyteller:
She was the exact same age as us, but she’d already experienced so much more. She’d discovered a rusty treasure chest filled with gold ducats in the ruins of some old castle; she had battled sabre-toothed tigers; she had sailed a pirate ship, wearing a wooden leg and with a green parrot on her shoulder. She’d spilled hundreds of glasses of orange squash, too, without any dire fallout. Just watch us try that at home.
The fathers are not immune to the exotic charm of Lucy’s mother either:
… they would always get this funny look on their faces whenever we started on about the way things were done in the rectory, or explained that if something got spilled over there, Lucy’s mother just laughed it off. Then our dads would cough and leave the table to walk the dog… Lucy told us our dads sometimes lingered on the green for hours, gazing up a the rectory’s lighted windows… And then they’d head home again. Back to their own wonderful, modern houses. Saved from the nuisances of living in a white elephant…
When another family moves into the area, and their young son Thomas and Lucy solemnly declare themselves to be engaged (at the age of 5-6), it all seems quaint and charming. But then the childhood idyll is shattered: a bizarre murder takes place and the community starts to take sides. Hypocrisy and judgement rise to the fore. The children gang up on Lucy, who seems to be the harbinger of bad luck, but she refuses to tell anyone about the severe bullying. This is told with frightening candour (from the point of view of the bullies) and the gradual piling on of horrors, albeit without any graphic details, will make your head spin:
…we were beginning to hope that Lucy would finally throw in the towel? But what were the chances of that? Just look at the way she insisted on going to the loo during break every morning, although she knew perfectly well what was in store for her there. Or the way she’d drink her carton of milk very day, even though we’d put soap in it over a hundred times. Or like that time with the matches. Or all the other times… She walked into every ambush, every trap, with eyes wide open; she seemed to be courting danger on purpose instead of trying to escape it. What was she playing at? There really was no need to rub our noses in it day after day… It got harder and harder to think of something that would top the last torment.
Eventually, her family decides to escape and make a clean start on the island of Lewis. They struggle at first with the barren landscape, the language, the weather and the physical labour of peating. The difficult moments are laced with humour, so it’s not all painful reading. Ultimately, Lucy believes she finds some sense of belonging in the Hebrides, with a new ‘gang’ of children. Yet the secrets hidden deep within their family make it impossible for them to forget the past and find peace.
I found the last part of the book less convincing: when Lucy returns to the Netherland as an adult and all the pernicious secrets and mysteries are revealed. The first two parts, however, make this book an emotionally gripping, quite intense read.
Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips)
After the two harrowing reads above, it was a pleasure to turn to a much softer, slightly more sentimental collection of short stories about love and the death of love, children discovering the world, loss of innocence and magic. Some of the stories are linked: we get to see different points of view and how the relationships evolve over time. In ‘Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger’ we see how a group of children frighten themselves witless with a séance, while in ‘Ten Times on the Lips’ we follow their tentative steps into adolescence, the need to show off, hide vulnerabilities, their fragile friendships and terrible moments of hurt. In ‘The Girl with the Roses’ we see two lovers in the early stages of their relationship, struggling to find common ground, while in ‘Inner Peace’ we see them many years later, married, with two children, growing apart.
There are parts that have a touch of magical realism (the first and longest story in the book is a curious blend of fantasy and reality), but there are also parts that sound so frighteningly realistic and down-to-earth that I felt I was being a fly on the wall witnessing the fights of many, many couples I’ve known personally.
It is all very readable, although the rich, flowing, verbose style and long sentences may feel unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. What the author does well is describe childhood years under Communism, without going into politics, simply the backdrop of the blocks of flats where the children play all day unsupervised. I also like the tension between the old world and the new (stressed mothers today vs. the older generation who feel that they endured far greater hardships, for example). The level of writing may not be quite there yet in terms of really thought-provoking literature, but Rosetti is a writer to watch.
The author hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French translation of her debut novelDeadline, a mystery novel with fantastical elements.
This is my first review for November’s German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy for the fourth year running. I’m delighted to be taking part, after enjoying the reviews posted by participants in previous years.
What a brave choice this was for Peirene Press in their second year of existence to choose this collection of short stories by relatively unknown Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig (impeccably translated into English by Tess Lewis)!
I say that because these stories are seriously strange, unsettling, disturbing. It’s like going to sleep in a familiar world and waking up in a dream-like, trance-like state, where everything seems just slightly off-kilter to start with. Odd, certainly, but still harmless, relatively benign. And then, slowly but surely, you sink into a treacle-like nightmare. The more you try to shake yourself free, the deeper you fall – and there’s no escape.
The author has been compared to Kafka and Thomas Bernhard, but there are few similarities (except for the fact that they are all Austrian and that there are certain passages in Kafka’s diaries, where he describes his dreams, which may sound familiar). I am reminded more of Freudian analysis, of the absurdity of Eugene Ionesco and the surrealist riffs of the short stories of Haruki Murakami. The narrator in virtually all of these stories is an unspecified male who seems to be struggling to understand the world and his own place in it, who seems to have some difficulty relating to others.
The shorter stories are perhaps more forgettable: they feel like warm-up exercises to the longer ones. Even so, they bring an interesting twist of perspective from this author who clearly sees things differently from the vast majority of us. The close observation of the struggle for survival amongst creepy-crawlies in ‘Encounter’, for instance, the sense of foreboding in ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ and stepping into the mind of a paranoid stalker (or is he?) in ‘Two Ways of Leaving’. The longer stories allow for gradual build-up of tension, while still leaving so much unsaid or merely hinted at.
In ‘Maybe This Time, Maybe Now’, a family’s gatherings are suffused with the joyful expectation and then anguish of their wait for the mysterious Uncle Walter, who never shows up, who perhaps doesn’t even exist. So you begin to wonder at the possible metaphors there: a family searching for perfection, a nation waiting for a saviour, the origin of religious belief? In ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ the narrator is accosted by an old woman on the street and invited into her house to admire her doll collection. One of the dolls resembles him but, instead of running away, he finds himself oddly attracted to the creepy experience the woman has to offer (older, more threadbare versions of himself).
Each time I left her house, a part of me remained behind, and I could feel its absence when I was not with her I didn’t know her at all in fact. She was a stranger to me in so many ways. Nothing bound me to her other than her knowledge about me and her ability to reveal me to myself to an extent no one else ever could.
In the first story, a man becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbours but ultimately only succeeds in delving deeper into himself. In ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’, a man seems to be suffering from amnesia and finds – with surprise – a name on his front door that others have been calling him, but of which he himself has no recollection. He is being taken for a person he believes he is not. This, I think, hints at the unifying aspect of all these stories: a search for identity. A feeling that, beneath all of the masks that the modern world forces upon us, there is something deep and enduring, if only we could find it. But is that indeed the case, or is the narrator forever doomed to be disappointed and betrayed – by himself and others?
This is a book which left me nervy and anxious, but also inspired (for my own writing). Still, it was with some relief that I turned to the more conventional love stories of Bernhard Schlink for my next read.
… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.
At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.
‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys, crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.
‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.
Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).
The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:
– T’as vu le métro?
– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?
– J’ai vielli.
Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).
Kudos to Peirene Press for continuing to find intriguing and unusual works to translate, from Europe and just beyond Europe. In this case, it’s by a writer from Uzbekistan but the action takes place in the steppes of Kazakhstan. The story of a young man is actually the story of the gradual decline of two families, but in fact encapsulates and personalises the entire Cold War history.
This is the second novel in quick succession by an author stemming from the Russian tradition in which the narration is a story within a story, told by a musician during one of those endless Russian railway journeys. The narrator comes across a child busker on a train and is amazed by his skills playing the violin. He then discovers that the musician, Yershan, is in fact a fully grown man, who still looks like a boy, and is intrigued to find out how he got like this. Yershan is happy to oblige, but has his own roundabout, unhurried way of telling the tale.
He talks about the harsh but idyllic childhood in an isolated community (formed of just two extended families) in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor in the Kazakh steppes. He talks about riding camels or donkeys to school, the strange beauty of the vast and endless expanses, the ominous rumblings beneath the earth which terrify all the animals. Above all, he talks about the love of his life, the little girl Aisulu that he grew up with. In a fit of boyish bravado, on a school trip to the nuclear reactor, he dives into a radioactive lake to impress her and all his other classmates. Since then, he stopped growing and had to watch his beloved Aisulu turn into a tall shapely woman, one he fears would never look at him. In the process of recounting his own great sorrow, he reveals not only his secret but also the saga of two families destroyed by silence, unspeakable loves, death and destruction, resilience and fortitude.
It took me a few pages to get into the story. The myths and legends told by the grandmothers seemed confusing at first – all those strange names and complicated family ties. But then the poetry of the landscape and the country childhood took over. It is a very short, yet remarkable and moving read. A lyrical book about a very difficult period in history, with the almost parody-like refrain of Uncle Shaken ‘We shall overtake the Americans!’
The chilling factual introduction to the story says it all:
Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out… The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested… exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945.
Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.
Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.
Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.
I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.
Their reaction surprised me a little. OK, a lot!
They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?
Now that the Chinese government has told us in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that the world is not going to end on the 21st of December, I can safely plan my ‘summary of just 2012’ blog post. Rather than having to summarise the whole history of Earth and human beings.
Out with the old, in with the new is what always comes to mind as the year changes. So I shall follow the good old wedding traditions and find something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue to list as my highlights for the year 2012.
I have rediscovered my pleasure for writing this year, especially for reading and writing poetry, which I haven’t done since high school. Writing is an old passion of mine, but I have been very clever at avoiding it (at least in its fully creative guise) over the past decade or more. So, welcome back, old friend, sit down and tarry a while. It’s such a pleasure to have you here with me!
Joining the online community through blogging and book reviewing and connecting with other, much better writers than myself. There is so much to learn here, so much to enjoy, especially on storytelling sites such as Cowbird, that I am afraid I am spending far too much time reading other people’s work and not concentrating nearly enough on my own. I have also discovered a genuine community and mutual support system here, which was unexpected and moving.
I will borrow my own review of the Top 5 Crime Reads of my year from over at Crime Fiction Lover. But while you’re there, you may want to check some of the other Top 5 picks by my fellow reviewers. They are all very knowledgeable about crime (fiction, of course). I have certainly added substantially to my already formidable TBR mountain.
No, I am not going to finish on a sad note, about what has made me blue this year. Instead, since blue is my favourite colour, I will tell you about some of my best discoveries this year. I was going to do it in images, but this antiquated desktop can’t seem to cope with that.
– The beauties of France: its settings, its history, its (contemporary, rather than what I read in school) literature
– Peirene Press – beautiful editions of world literature in translation (with a pronounced Teutonic flavour), as well as an interesting business model based on subscription and community-building
– There is more to skiing than racing madly downhill – I have also learnt cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing this year
– That maybe I do need a cat to complete my happiness after all. We befriended a friend’s cat at the weekend and now I want one just like her!
– Online reading challenges. I intend to participate in a couple this coming year: Translation Reading Challenge (particularly from cultures that I know next to nothing about) hosted by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and the Global Reading Challenge, to be hosted by Mysteries in Paradise.
So, what have been your highlights this year? And what do you intend to keep on doing in the New Year, or what do you intend to start afresh?