Keiichiro Hirano: A Man,trans. Eli K.P. William, Amazon Crossing, 2020.
Rie Takemoto’s husband Daisuke Taniguchi was an incomer to their little town S in the Miyazaki Prefecture of Japan. He moved to the town at the age of thirty-five wanting a complete change of career, and he worked in forestry for four years, three of which he spent married to Rie, before being crushed by a tree.
Upon his death, Rie discovers that her famously reticent husband was actually not who he claimed to be. Shocked at the possibility that her marriage was a complete lie, she contacts the lawyer Akira Kido to try and find out more about the man she married. Kido becomes obsessed with the investigation, as he uncovers layer after layer of mystery and hidden identities. It turns out that Japan’s old-fashioned, paper-based family register system is open to manipulation, and that people buy and sell identities to get rid of a troublesome past.
But this is not simply a mystery novel. Kido himself is a zainichi (of Korean origins), although he grew up in a very Japanese environment and doesn’t even speak Korean. After the 2011 tsunami, he has been forcibly made aware of his heritage and starts to feel that his Japanese wife is perhaps ashamed of it. One of the people he investigates changed his identity to escape his family heritage (his father was a notorious criminal) – and Kido sees parallels to his own situation.
In all honesty, I don’t like when other Zainichi try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special… Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.
The novel becomes a meditation on what makes up ‘a man’ or our ‘real self’. But it’s also a poignant description of failing to live up to our youthful aspirations and wondering whether we too might be tempted to turn over a completely new leaf and reinvent ourselves if we could do so without grave consequences.
Such is the intriguing premise of this novel, the first by Hirano that I’ve read. I was aware of the author from the sterling blog run by J.C. Greenway, who actually lives in Japan.
Although I enjoyed the story overall (and in particular the characters of Kido and Misuzu, Daisuke’s former girlfriend), I have to admit that the multiple swaps of identity and the deliberate obfuscations of the ‘identity broker’ in prison got confusing and irritating after a while. I also found the prose rather pedestrian, occasionally clunky, with the more philosophical meditations shoehorned in rather than feeling like an organic, inevitable part of the story. I am not sure if that is the author’s style in Japanese or if it’s the translation. At the same time, I appreciate the book for its realism, its accurate description of the hard-working, less than glamorous everyday of life in contemporary Japan, rather than the surreal flights of fantasy encountered in Murakami, for instance.
Having said that, I am about to embark upon a Murakami book for my next read, so…
I’ve read 160 books this year, so it’s impossible to stick to a list of a mere ten top favourites. So instead I’ve organised things by categories. Don’t worry, I won’t quite name 160 books! After a stint of rereading and a look at modern classics from the first half of the 20th century, I am now becoming more contemporary and looking at this year’s releases. This used to form the bulk of my reading back in 2013-2016 when I was doing a lot of crime fiction reviewing, but I have been much slower to read them these past 2-3 years. I now much prefer for the buzz to die down. The buzz for the titles below is more than justified, though!
This book meant so much to me personally, both as a budding translator and as someone who studied Japanese, lived briefly in Japan and worked for Japanese organisations in the past. It is also written in such an interesting way: not just a memoir, not just an essay about translation or cultural encounters, and also a Bildungsroman, cutting a young person’s ego and certainties down to size (in painful ways, occasionally). Unashamedly subjective and yet universal.
…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’
I was utterly smitten with the beautiful, sensous, rhythmic prose of this one, a real prose poem, and for once the use of the second person felt completely justified. It also made me feel about nineteen-twenty again!
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 author captures the humdrum of the everyday but also the numinous moments of awareness, of things that occasionally make us change (but most frequently don’t). Understated yet so powerful – a voice that grows and grows on you at each reading.
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.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz:The Passenger, transl. Philip Boehm,Pushkin Press.
No other book conveys the plight of refugees so accurately, without being about refugees explicitly. In this portrayal of a privileged German Jew who suddenly finds himself on the run after Kristallnacht, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling hunted and unwanted, of casual and deliberate racism, the bureaucratic hurdles that make it nearly impossible to escape still feel extremely topical.
The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.
The first book in a very promising new series featuring retro-detective Zaitsev, set in 1930s St Petersburg, with the Stalinist oppression never far from the surface. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace, and a complicated story featuring serial killers, political machinations and priceless stolen treasure. In equal measure entertaining and educational, but we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were.
If you haven’t found your favourite book of 2021 in the brief list above, there is still a chance they made my ‘Sheer Entertainment’ category, which will follow shortly, or else in my New Discoveries and Deeper Dives section.
I am dedicating most of my December reading to Russians in the snow (other seasons also acceptable) and started with two very entertaining reads set in one of my dream cities.
St Petersburg ranks very highly indeed in my wishlist of places to go – and has done since I was about 12 and read my first Dostoevsky. In the meantime, I have read so many more Russian writers who were in equal parts fascinated and repelled with the city, in love with its beauty but satirising its pretentiousness. My son was due to go on a school trip to St Petersburg (taking the night train from Moscow – how romantic!) in 2020, and I was green with envy that he would get there before me. But now it looks like both of us will have to be patient a little longer. So I console myself with two books that have Petersburg as a setting, but one hundred years apart.
Nikolai Gogol: Petersburg Tales, trans. Dora O’Brien
Back in the 1830s, St Petersburg was the capital city of the Russian Empire, a nest of bureaucracy and a hotbed of political advancement and intrigue. Gogol felt an outsider when he came to the city in pursuit of literary fame – and no doubt was made to feel an outsider, derided for his Ukrainian roots, thwarted in his academic ambitions, ridiculed for his physical appearance (he apparently had quite an inferiority complex about his nose and lack of height). He has the sharp eye and merciless satire of the outsider when he describes Petersburg and its inhabitants.
The first story, ‘Nevsky Prospect’, spends a good nine of its 52 pages simply describing a day in the life of the famous main street in St Petersburg, from dawn to dusk, and the people who either go about their business quietly or else parade there ostentatiously. Gogol has a style as a chatty omniscient narrator who takes you into his confidence, shares jokes, mocks affectionately (and sometimes sharply), expects you to agree with him. He makes sweeping generalisations at times, which will nevertheless have you nodding your head in stunned recognition as if ‘why did I not think of this before?’ Take for example his description of the shy, idealistic young artist Piskarev:
A St Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snow, an artist in the land of the Finns, where all is wet, plain, level, pale, grey and misty. These artists have nothing in common with Italian artists – proud, passionate, like Italy itself and its sky – on the contrary, these are mostly kind, meek folk, timid, easy-going, quietly enjoying their art, drinking tea with a couple of friends in small rooms, modestly discussing their favourite topic and shoring no interest at all in anything else.
Piskarev espies a classical beauty on Nevsky Prospect and follows her home, only to discover that she works in a brothel. He is determined to rescue her from her terrible, fallen ways through marriage, but discovers that not everybody is as keen on his artistic vows of poverty.
‘The Nose’ is probably the best-known story by Gogol, an enchanting concoction of equal parts social critique and surrealism, a mantle taken up later in literature by Bulgakov. A placid barber, who ‘like any decent Russian skilled worker was a dreadful drunkard’, finds a human nose in his bread roll one morning and panics, believes he recognises it as belonging to one of his clients, and tries to get rid of it before he is accused of a crime. Meanwhile, social climber Major Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose missing – there is no visible wound on his face, simply a flat surface where his nose should have been. This gives him a tremendous inferiority complex, and all his plans for advancement in the labyrinthine Tsarist civil service Table of Ranks seem doomed to failure. As he chases around the city to try and find his truant nose, he discovers it wearing a military uniform of superior rank and not at all disposed to return to its rightful place. In despair, he accuses the mother of a girl he refused to marry of witchcraft, but then realises that he has no choice but to resign himself to his ignoble fate even after his nose is returned to him – for it will not stick to his anatomy!
The story really is laugh-out-loud funny, even if you are familiar with its broad outlines – there is always a line or observation that will strike you afresh upon each rereading. This time it was the witty swipe at police corruption that got me:
The Superintendent was a great promoter of all the arts and manufactured goods [his whole house is packed with sugar loaves brought to him by merchants as tokens of friendship], but he loved a banknote best of all. ‘That really is something,’ he would say, ‘and there’s nothing to beat it: it doesn’t require food, takes little room, always fits in a pocket and if you drop it, it doesn’t break.’
‘The Overcoat’ is somewhat more sentimental because both the author and the readers have a lot of sympathy for the pitiful little clerk Akaky Akakievich, who has worn his coat threadbare and has to scrimp and save desperately to get himself a new one to survive the harsh winter months, only to have it stolen from him.
Aside from his absurdist touches, which baffled his contemporaries, Gogol has been revered (mostly after his death) for being the first realist writer, his biting satire of bureaucracy became a model for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yet it is his description of the lives of the ‘little people’ which seem particularly poignant and which form the link to the next book I read:
… in those hours when the grey St Petersburg sky completely fades away and all the civil-service folk have eaten their fill and finished dinner… when rest has come to all and everything after the departmental scratching of quills, the running around, the performance of your own as well as others’ necessary tasks… when clerks hurry off to devote the time that is left to pleasure… or… this happens most often, simply to go to visit their fellow clerk who lives on the fourth or third floor, in two small rooms with either a hall or a kitchen and some fashionable pretentious objects… Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any form of relaxation.
Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Having two rooms and a kitchen of one’s own would seem like an unimaginable luxury to the working classes in Yakovleva’s Leningrad of 1930. The author sprinkles the crime story with lots of details of daily life in the Soviet Union. The grand old houses have been split up into communal apartments with shared kitchens, with ten Primus stoves and tables of all different shapes and sizes, queues for the bathroom, the heavy stench of other people’s cooking, the constant noise from other rooms, the neighbours trying to spread gossip about you in the hope that they would be allocated your living quarters if you got ‘purged’.
This book is not just a ‘retro’ piece of historical crime, to provide some cosy relief and differentiation from all the present-day police procedurals that are starting to look a bit samey. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace. Like Abir Mukherjee’s series set in India in the last decades of the British Empire, it is in equal measure entertaining and educational. But we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were: Zaitsev, the main investigator, is snatched by the OGPU (secret police, forerunner of the KGB) and imprisoned for several months right in the midst of the story. He knows that he is in danger of being purged for good at the slightest misstep.
He believes he might be on the tracks of a serial killer, who seems to like posing his victims in a very theatrical fashion. Yet there is nothing to connect the victims, there is no clear motive for the murders. His superiors are less interested in the complications of a serial killing theory – they only want to rapidly resolve the crime that occurred on Yelagin Island, which is earmarked for development, to create a leisure park for the masses.
There is a lot of love for the city, despite its recent decay: at some point, Zaitsev wonders how anyone should want to think about committing crimes in such beautiful surroundings, and his deputy quickly counters that some of the buildings could do with a lick of paint. The city appears as a provincial backwater when compared to Moscow, where Zaitsev heads briefly during his investigation, but in such heavily political times, perhaps being less at the ‘heart of things’ is a good strategy. Yet the author also pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Leningrad’s inhabitants, who believe they are superior to anyone else in the Soviet Union, especially the cultured elite who despise the ignorant working classes. The sense of place is excellent throughout, even if slightly less satirical than in Gogol. And of course, I cannot resist a description of winter, after all, it is about Russians in the snow, right?
Outside, there had been a sudden thaw. His shoes squelched in the icy slush. The sky was reflected in the dove-grey puddles, with crumbs of ice… He crossed Nevsky under the very nose of a tram, narrowly missed a black Ford, a horse and cart. Leningrad was the former capital of the empire… but pedestrians behaved like it was a village, crossing the street wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, cutting straight across, diagonally, or even wandering along the carriageway, listlessly dodging the few cars. Most of them had recently been villagers, after all, who poured into the city in search of work. They still had their provincial havits, never mind that they were lethal with the city traffic.
There is such a lot of potential with this setting, this time period, the quirky characters who form Zaitsev’s team, as well as all the crimes that occurred during that period, that I hope this leads to a long-running and successful series of crime novels – and maybe even a TV adaptation. I can see Babylon Berlin parallels there!
Now of course I am tempted to continue with something set in contemporary Petersburg, nearly a hundred years after the setting for Yakovleva’s book. But contemporary Russian authors seem to set their stories more in Moscow or other places. However, for a glimpse of Petersburg in the 1980s and 1990s, I would recommend two films: Leto, depicting the underground rock scene of the early 1980s with its charismatic rock star Viktor Tsoi, and Brat directed by Aleksei Balabanov, about a young man released from the Soviet army in the mid-1990s and discovering capitalism thanks to his older brother, who is involved in the criminal gangs of Petersburg.
Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hofmann
I had read about Irmgard Keun in the really quite wonderful book about women under the national socialist regime in Germany by Edda Ziegler, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her. However, a lot of my bookblogging friends seemed to really enjoy her work. This one caught my eye in the bookshop and, as a child of all nations myself (raising even more international children), I couldn’t resist it, even though I prefer reading German books in the original if I possibly can.
After reading The Passenger so recently, it struck me how similar the subject matter is, but seen from a child’s perspective. Written in 1938, before the full horrors of the war would grip all of Europe, it is prescient and claustrophobic, just like The Passenger, but because it is told by a child narrator, it does not quite have the despair and airless sensation of Anna Segher’s Transit – nor its power, I thought.
Child narrators are notoriously difficult to pull off. Ten-year-old Kully is a curious mix of naivety and street smarts. Shunted from country to country, learning to beg and trick and bribe while living in a constant fear of being kicked out of hotels and friends’ houses, she has had to grow up far beyond her years. School is too dull for her, because she already knows far more of real life, geography and languages than what she is taught there., ‘all the things she needed to know in her life, there was not one she had learned at school.’ But at other times she comes out with startling statements about the relationship between men and women in particular which sound far too childish – or perhaps show that she has not spent enough time with both parents to have this kind of conversations with them:
It seems a Maharaha has several wives, which I think is a good thing. That way when he has to leave, I won’t be alone but will be able to turn to the other wives for comfort. I don’t know whether it’s allowed to marry several Maharajas. Obviously that would be the best. Then, if a couple of them had to travel to Poland, I’d still have a few more to hand. My mother is a great example of how diffiult it is for a woman who has to get by on just one man.
Some of the smart-aleck observations are more successful than others, and often Kully has too advanced overtly political thoughts (although they are often quoted as her father’s thoughts):
Everything that’s wrong with the world begins with fear… All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever…. the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, they get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid.
The bills mount up, the father keeps travelling around trying to sell his writing, while Kully and her mother have to deal with the fallout. Along the way, she encounters (even if she doesn’t always understand it) mental breakdown, infidelity, rejection, suicide, death and alcohol. She often has to be more of a grown-up, more sensible than her parents. She is, in essence, robbed of a proper, carefree childhood, even when she plays with other children, she is cynically copying their gestures and manipulating things so she can fit in.
There is a brief moment of joy in the milder climes of Italy with her mother and grandmother, as well as an interlude of hope when she and her father make it out on the ship to America. But Italy has its own dictator, and the promised land across the ocean does not offer as much of a welcome as they were hoping for, plus their mother got left behind in Europe by accident. So Kully returns to Europe, just as Keun herself almost inexplicably did in 1938, condemning herself to inner exile, anonymity, living under a false name and losing her voice.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I expected to: maybe the rumours that the difficult, somewhat feckless father is modelled on Joseph Roth, maybe the inconsistent child narrator voice, maybe the rather unbelievable ‘temporarily happy’ ending (of course we know that any happiness or togetherness was bound to be short-lived in Amsterdam at the time). I think her earlier, more optimistic novels such as Gilgi or The Artificial Silk Girl, with indomitable, independent, fearless young women trying to make their way in the world, might have been a better place to start. In this book, I could detect the bitterness of defeat.
Nevertheless, I am glad I managed to sneak this one into my German Literature Month reviews and Novellas in November. It has been a fantastic month of reading – novellas really are often more powerful than novels, perhaps because they have to convey so much in so little space!
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.
This post might also be called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, featuring two writers, one male and one female, one living in Lebanon, the other abroad, who both use oral storytelling as a narrative device and blend personal stories with political ones, trying to explain what is inexplicable, or at least give us a flavour of what it might be like to go through such difficult times. Neither of these books are easy to read, despite what the jaunty cover of the second one might indicate, but they are worthwhile, well-written and thought-provoking.
Elias Khoury: White Masks, transl. Maia Tabet, Maclehose Press. (Originally published in 1981, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon)
An apparently banal murder of a man in his fifties, left on a rubbish tip in Beirut: Khalil Ahmad Jaber represents everyman – wife, family, two married daughters, a son who fought in the civil war and has been proclaimed a ‘martyr’. Prior to his body being discovered, disappeared for three weeks. The story is narrated by a journalist who tries to investigate the case – and speaks to his widow, his daughter, the neighbour (an engineer who seems reasonably interested in the widow), widow of the caretaker of the block of flats who seems to have had a relationship with the deceased, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militiaman who was involved in the interrogation of Khalil, his daughter, the doctor who performed the autopsy.
Each account gives of course a very different view of the troubled personality of the dead man, seeks to justify their own part in his downfall, but also show how preoccupied they are with their own lives. The narrative gives the feeling of interview transcripts, messy, slipping easily from present to past and back again, going off on tangents. Perhaps in keeping with the oral storytelling tradition of the region.
Finally, the journalist narrator’s voice comes back in at the end of the book, to almost chide himself for picking such a ‘small’ subject to ‘entertain, please and pass the time’ (surely an irony, as he succeeds in doing almost exactly the opposite – cause anxiety, worry and confuse us). He sums it up as one small tragedy among so many that are being played out daily.
Is the identification of the murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime? I don’t think so… It was not for lack of trying… I spent months investigating and reading to try and establish the facts.. So now, dear reader, you too may feel as bewildered as I do. Faced with the impossibility of discovering the truth, you must doubt, as I do, the reported incident itself, as well as people’s accounts. I am sure one of those clever literary critics is going to say that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I can just hear him saying, ‘But surely Beirut is just like any other city, full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, going to work, eating, sleeping, having sex, having children, dying, celebrating festivals buying chocolate egss, sugared almonds, and maa’moul.’ While all of that is true, I do not know how one can reconcile that assertion with my story.’
The book is troubling in its portrayal not only of the ‘artistic truth’, which is in the eye of the beholder, as we have seen in Rashomon and many other instances, but also in its political implications, namely that the truth is no longer valued. Arriving at even an approximation of the truth is no longer attempted and you can trust no one. A weary, cynical view of partisanship and a necessary indictment of all sides in a conflict.
Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost, transl, Marilyn Booth, Oneworld Publications. Initially published in Arabic in 2017
Barakat perhaps represents the next generation of Lebanese, who never knew the country before constant civil war drove them into exile. She has been living in France for quite a while now, so it comes as no surprise that her novel reflects the stories of those who left a country torn by war (it could be Lebanon or any other country in the Middle East or North Africa, or several different ones). Six individuals are trying to make new lives for themselves somewhere abroad, but they are also looking back towards their home, their family and their past, writing letters to the ones they left behind… letters which never reach their destination, but are found by the next letter-writer in the chain. Despite the cheery-looking cover and the more modern tone, the six stories in this novel also weave a dark and troublesome story of displacement, hopes quashed, struggling to be accepted and treated as an equal and living in poverty and uncertainty. At times, it feels like letter writers are their own worst enemies, as they make dangerous or foolish or bad choices – or at least, that’s how we would judge them at a distance, in the comfort of our own settled lives. But who knows how we might act if we were in similar situations, with the personal, familial and historical social burden weighing upon us?
The conceit of letter-writing (after all, who still writes letters nowadays, would they not be more likely to call or send messages via phone) also gives a very immediate, oral storytelling quality to the book. The letters are found in those public liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither old home nor new country: hotels, airports, planes. They never reach their intended destination, but towards the end of the book, we see how the intended recipients might respond to them (or at least to the people who wrote them). At the same time, the author makes us the readers question how we might respond if we were to encounter these people. None of the people presented here are ‘nice’ or ‘worthy’ refugees – they are prickly, egoistic, pitiful, performative, trying to justify the horrible things they did in the past, often downright nasty. The whole gamut of human experience, because anyone can become a displaced individual. But they are not just individuals who make bad choices, they are also victims of their place of birth, their culture and upbringing, the historical and social circumstances.
There are both shocking moments and so many poignant and wistful details in each of these stories. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes:
Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.
Another voice says the following in a letter to her mother:
If a mother doesn’t love her daughter, then who will she love in this world? Mother, why did you change so much as you got older? Didn’t I obey you enough?… I know that you loved me when I was a child. And then the world treated you harshly. The hardships accumulated, as they did for me, and the bitterness of it all weighed on your heart. This is what life does to us, how it determines things. Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds.
This book provides such a powerful, uncompromising look at people on the margins of society:
These people see no one and no one sees them. Any attempt to infiltrate the world beyond that wall ends in catastrophic, violent repulsion, like the meeting of two substances whose magnetic charges repel each other. Two worlds, completely cut off from each other, two languages whose codes are mutually undecipherable, unreadable in whichever direction you try to read them.
How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them and which things harden?
I was too busy at work this month to get much reading done, so these two will be my only two books from Lebanon, but they certainly provided an intriguing insight into a different culture and literary style. My last book in the May reading of translated Arabic literature will be Egyptian: Palace Walk, which deals with far less recent history.
Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.
I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.
He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.
This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).
Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.
I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?
That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?
It has always been like this. Always. Always.
It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.
However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.
So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.
I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.
Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.
In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.
In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality
There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!
Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’
There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.
I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.
What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.
Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.
This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):
Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.
Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?
I have previously really enjoyed and reviewed Seethaler’s The Tobacconist; while The Field has also been reviewed by John, Rachel and (in fascinating detail) by Susan.
I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov(which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Becketthere.
Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:
I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Humanin a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Stationby Yu Miri
Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novelKokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).
For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.
Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.
Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.
The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.
The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.
Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.
Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.
Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).
However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.
Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.
Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.
Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.
In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.
The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.
Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.
Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.
You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.