Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna (transl. Alison Entrekin)

housesmyrnaBrazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time). ¬†Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes¬†was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.

The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna.¬†Apparently, this book¬†was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead. ¬†The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.

Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.

A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.

By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.

tatiana-salem-levy-a-chave-de-casa-en-portugues-807711-MLA20602118566_022016-FThere is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?

we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.

ravenscragCoincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Qu√©b√©cois author Alain Farah’s novel¬†Ravenscrag.¬†Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.

 

Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

I had the great pleasure to attend  a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne.  This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French Рand also, very often, their native languages.

Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’. ¬†It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother. ¬†With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts, ¬†the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.

Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’

Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.

Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.

Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress. ¬†This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island. ¬†Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!

So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing. ¬†Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies. ¬†While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun, ¬†the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Availability of English Translations

Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US.  This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.

Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into¬†French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations. ¬†Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.

To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake! ¬†What more has that woman got to do to be noticed? ¬†It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.

The Future of Writer’s Colonies

I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing. ¬†Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living. ¬†Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.

Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes. ¬†Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative. ¬† Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?

The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future. ¬†They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis. ¬†Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing. ¬†I do hope the magic of Lavigny¬†will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk