Summary of June Reading And Other Good Things

June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?

Books

I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter.  Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:

I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.

Films

Since my last round-up of films, I’ve watched a few more, all coincidentally with a ‘fish out of water’ theme.

Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.

The Past – Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.

The Shining – a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.

Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.

Other Events:

Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.

Translation Theory Lab – discussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art. 

Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors

The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.

Plans for July:

I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.

 

Remembering the Unforgettable Anthea Bell #AntheaBellDay

Yesterday, 10th of May, was the birthday of that wonderful translator and champion of German and French literature, Anthea Bell. After her death in 2018, Roland Glasser, himself a translator from French, had the following brainwave:

I realized that she was one of those people who had almost an immortal presence, like Bowie or Dylan, and was the nearest thing we translators had to a contemporary icon! Her reputation was on a whole other level. And in contrast to St Jerome [patron saint of translators], she was a contemporary woman translating secular texts and thus, in many ways, more relevant to many of us. I had visions of translators parading through the streets carrying her effigy (yes, I know that goes against the whole “secular” thing!). And so the idea for  #AntheaBellDay was born. Last year, the inaugural day coincided both with the AGM of the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires // European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich and an exhibition of Sebald’s photgraphs at the @SainsburyCentre at the University of East Anglia. It seemed most auspicious!

Every translator and every writer who has ever worked with Anthea Bell has expressed their profound admiration not only for her skills, but for her generosity of spirit and championing of her colleagues. Sadly, I never got to see or hear her in person, but she has nevertheless had a profound personal impact upon me.

As a child I discovered her translations of Asterix long before I got to know the name of the translator. I collected and read the Asterix and Obelix books in three languages: French, German and English. Even at the age of 7-8, I realised that the German language editions were OK but nothing to write home about, while the English language editions at times surpassed the original. My favourite examples are Getafix for the druid (so much wittier than Panoramix) and Dogmatix for Obelix’s little canine friend (which translates the spirit of Idéfix perfectly, but with additional humour).

Later, I became obsessed for a while with all things Sebald and this was where Anthea’s translations helped me most. I tend to read books in German and French in the original, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a multilingual environment. In my late teens/early twenties I was just a tad fanatical about it: poo-poohing reading in translation as ‘taking the easy way out’. Which was ironic, given that I was studying modern languages and training to become a translator and interpreter myself. However, when I read Anthea Bell’s translations, particularly of Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, I discover something new, an additional nuance that I’d missed in the original.

At a recent literary event, Julia Franck spoke about the joyous experience of being translated by Anthea Bell, and how difficult it was losing her. Anthea, Franck said, had an intuitive feel for the language and how to make it work in English, how to keep its melody and rhythm, while conveying several layers of meaning.

When I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, I read quite a few of Anthea’s translations of crime novels, such as those by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now, you know I love my crime fiction, but occasionally the style can suffer a little at the expense of the plot. Not so with Anthea’s translations – I remember a particularly beautiful description of a landscape which was much more eloquent in Anthea’s rendering of it than in the original text (of an author who shall remain nameless here). Anthea was no literary snob – she translated widely, across all genres (I am particularly fond of her children’s literature), always to the best of her abilities, rather than solely to a deadline or a pay cheque.

Below are a few of my treasured Anthea Bell translations. I do hope that this commemoration of her life and work will continue for many years to come. And I still aspire to translate maybe a third as well and as broadly as she did!

Five Things to Sing About

It’s easy to get caught up in the panicky bad news cycle, scrolling blindly on Twitter to see if London Book Fair is still on, what the latest spread of the virus is, speak to the phone with worried elderly parents (and be secretly relieved that they’ve decided to cancel their trip to the UK next week, as they would fall into the vulnerable categories), try and plan summer holidays for the boys with an ex who tries to sabotage you every step of the way. More than ever, we need to remind ourselves of all that is good and lovely or even just OK in our lives. So here are five things which gave me joy this last week or so.

This kimono looks like something out of Genji Monogatari

Anne Enright in conversation with Andrew O’Hagan about her new book Actress (which has just been longlisted for the Women’s Prize)

I’ve only read a few books by Anne Enright, and haven’t read this one yet (but am eager to, it sounds exactly my sort of thing – tricky mother/daughter relationship, the dangers of celebrity culture, theatre world etc.) The author in person was very funny, very opinionated, not at all shy and does not suffer fools gladly. I think quite a few people would describe her as spiky and remorseless and are slightly afraid of her. At which she rather brilliantly replied: ‘Why are writers described as ruthless? We just sit (and observe) and write.’ Another thing she said also struck me: that England is currently going through that nationalist rhetoric and identity trumpeting that Ireland went through in the past century… and we all know what that led to.

The perfect kimono for a crime writer, translator and publisher

Watching and debating films with my boys (OK, mainly the older boy who is getting very ambitious about his viewing of classic films, but the younger one occasionally participates too) – this weekend it was La Haine (which the older one is studying for A Level French) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which instantly made his top 10 list). The frightening thing about La Haine (made in 1995) is how little things have changed for the banlieue and its inhabitants since then, although the French PM at the time made his entire cabinet watch it. I’d love to see Johnson getting his cabinet to watch a Ken Loach film!

A kimono combining two of my greatest loves: the silk manufacturers of Lyon produced the material, which was given as a present by the French ambassador to a local daimyo after the opening of Japan in the Meiji era.

Analysing The Great Gatsby with my older son while working out at the gym. He borrowed it from my bookcase on Friday afternoon, had read it by Saturday evening and, knowing that it’s one of my favourite novels of all time, was keen to discuss it with me while we were puffing away side-by-side on our cross trainers. I have to admit that this comes pretty close to how I thought parenthood might look like ideally before I had children! (It has seldom lived up to that level of expectation.)

Not to neglect the younger son, who also suprised me very pleasantly. Just as I was moaning about him not doing enough reading and that I wish he would read anything, comics, non-fiction, I’m not fussy, as long as he reads rather than just plays computer games all the time etc. etc., the doorbell rang and it was a delivery for him from Amazon (well, we’ll work on the buying from independent bookshops angle later) of a trilogy of books Bakemonogatari (Tales of Monsters) by Japanese author Nisioisin. He’s been busy devouring these ever since and I am tempted to read them myself.

Wedding kimonos – the white at the start of the ceremony, the red outer kimono at the end.

The Kimono Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert – there are no words to describe how happy this made me! I studied Japanese, taught Japanese anthropology, cultural history and literature for a while and have spent several (sadly, far too short) periods in Japan at summer schools etc. I always meant to buy a kimono but could never afford a proper one. I could have spent hours analysing every single pattern, weave, material, detail. I photographed nearly every single one of them and two thirds of the pictures are utter rubbish, but I’ve used some of them, no matter how rubbish, to illustrate this blog post.

My kind of kimono: I rather like monochromes and this has the elegance and modern look I would wear regularly.

Finishing the translation of Sword – I still have to get a third-party edit and proofreading sorted, but I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. This is going to be such an exciting political thriller, unlike any other the English-speaking world has seen so far!

Exciting news: what’s been keeping me busy

You may have noticed that I’ve been far less present online since the start of this year. There are several reasons for that: some boring, and some very pleasant indeed.

In this latter category, I am proud to be part of a very exciting initiative. I am one of four friends and literary addicts who have decided (probably against any common sense) to set up a publishing venture to bring more translated fiction to the English-speaking world. Our baby is called Corylus Books, we are planning to launch at the London Book Fair and we are still in the process of setting up our website. But we do have a Twitter handle @CorylusB and a couple of books all ready to go.

Who Are We?

We are passionate readers of crime fiction and literature in translation. We have close connections to several countries, chief among them Romania, Iceland and the UK, of course. We are eager to build bridges between different cultures… and one of the best ways to do that is via literature. The four of us are writers, translators, academics, bloggers, festival organisers, reviewers and publishers, so we have a broad and complementary set of skills. We are starting with crime fiction, because that is a genre we know and love, but we are open to any interesting stories that are well told. We always like a slice of social commentary with our fiction as well.

Corylus is the Latin name for the hazel tree which produces hazelnuts. According to the Celts, hazelnuts confer wisdom and inspiration. In German fairytales, the hazel branch offers the greatest protection from snakes and other dangerous creatures. Last but not least, the Romanian name for hazel is ‘alun’ and the song ‘Alunelu’, alunelu’, hai la joc!’ is one of our best-known folk dances. Plus, like all good deciduous shrubs, it grows profusely in the right climate. All splendid metaphors for our venture.

We all have full-time jobs in addition to this passion project – which is where the madness comes in. So, whilst we are ambitious, we will start small and grow gradually. Nevertheless, we have some some exciting works in the pipeline.

Our Books

Anamaria Ionescu: Zodiac

Four murders in four different locations, each body showing a strange mark (possibly a zodiac sign?). The only thing the victims seem to have in common is that they were all born in the little spa town of Voineasa in the Romanian sub-Carpathian region. The fast-paced narrative switches between the streets of Bucharest and the wooded hills of Voineasa. Sergiu Manta has been forced to work in the shadowy world of state-supported asassins, but he knows it’s not him who’s been carrying out these murders. In the course of the investigation, he locks horns with the local police inspector determined to crack the case. The novel cleverly blends well-worn serial killer tropes with an inside look at a secretive special-ops team.

Teodora Matei: Living Candles

If you enjoy travelling the world virtually through your crime fiction, then Living Candles is the perfect book to convey the atmosphere of the Romanian urban environment. Or at least the murkier side of it: the blocks of flats where the neighbours all know each other’s business, the pensioners gossiping on the bench outside the entrances, the machismo impregnating the atmosphere so thickly, you could cut it with a knife.

These two will be out very soon and ARCs should be available for a blog tour by end of March. So let me know in the comments if you think you might want to take part, and I can give you more details.

Bogdan Teodorescu: Sword

The third book is a political thriller which I have only just finished translating (and still need to edit). It’s called Spada in the original Romanian (Sword in English) and it is by political analyst and professor of election campaigning Bogdan Teodorescu. It was translated into French a few years ago and did quite well there, with Le Monde and other publications reviewing it positively. Among our blogger friends, Emma from Book Around read and reviewed it, called it a ‘stunning political thriller’ and said what a shame it wasn’t translated into English. We are once more in serial killer territory, but the focus here is not at all on the investigation, but instead on how the crimes become a pretext for politics. It is unnervingly, chillingly accurate of the political situation not just in Romania but in many other countries at the present time. So I am delighted that we will finally be able to share it with you! Here is my attempt at a blurb.

Romanian cover of the 2nd edition of Spada. Cover reveal of English edition to follow!

A petty criminal is found dead in the streets of Bucharest,killed with a single stab to the throat. Initially, the police believe it’s a fight between gangs, but when two more deaths follow in quick succession, all with the same MO, it becomes clear that Romania’s capital city is facing one of its first recorded instances of a serial killer. The press are eager to run sensationalist reports and give the killer the nickname Sword, after the weapon used.  But there is an added complication: all the victims are from the Roma (gypsy) minority, and all of them have a police record. While the police struggle to find any leads, politicians have no qualms about using the case to score points against their opponents. Is this some misguided vigilante – and will the majority population start seeing Sword as a saviour rather than a criminal? The race is on to find the killer before interethnic clashes engulf the country, but a series of blunders at all levels leads to an escalation of conflict. Originally published in 2008, the novel is remarkably candid and prescient about racism, the rise of fake news, manipulation of the truth and political corruption. This astute political thriller will remind readers of TV shows like Borgen or West Wing.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir: The Fox

Icelandic author Sólveig Pálsdóttir has only been writing for seven years, but she is a rising star in her native country. She’s been translated into German and we hope to introduce her to an English-speaking audience in late summer/early autumn.

Icelandic cover of The Fox.

A young woman, one of Iceland’s immigrant community, vanishes without trace soon after arriving in the village of Höfn, so suddenly that there are doubts that the vulnerable young woman had even been there at all. Her disappearance, some suspicious events in the town and an isolated farm spark the interest of Reykjavík police officer Guðgeir, who is spending time working as a security guard in Höfn while he recovers from trauma in both his professional and his private life.

Finally, if you are attending the London Book Fair on the 10th of March, come and speak to us at the Romanian pavilion/stand. We will be talking about our new venture, our books and our future plans in an event organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute that day. Also, if you are coming to Newcastle Noir on 1-3 May 2020, you will have the opportunity to hear the author of Sword speak and get your hands on drippingly new (ink barely dried) copies of the English translation of the book.

January in Japan: Short Stories by Women

I cannot remember where exactly I came across this rather lovely little bilingual collection of short stories by Japanese women writers, translated and edited by Angus Turvill and sponsored by The Japan Society in the UK . Probably the London Book Fair, but it is available for purchase (mostly online). The collection features Kuniko Mukoda (gone far too soon), Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni, Mitsuyo Kakuta, Aoko Matsuda. I had only read Mukoda in the original a long time ago and in translation only the last of these authors, Matsuda’s novella entitled The Girl Who Is Getting Married (translated by the same Angus Turvill).

The stories are presented in parallel text format, although of course it is not intended to be an absolute literal translation. Nevertheless, it makes me feel curiously powerful to be able to check the original Japanese on the left against the English on the right, especially when the original includes phonetic transcription of all the kanji characters that might prove a bit of a struggle to this rusty scholar of Japanese! It also includes a fascinating discussion of translation choices at the end, which demonstrates just how tricky translation can be.

The stories all take place in different settings – town, country, seaside, past, present. In all but one of them, the main character is a woman, at different stages of their life, and in scenarios that will sound terribly familiar to women outside Japan too. From the young girl shunned by her classmates in The Ball by Kuroda, to the young worker profoundly tired of ‘friendly working environments’ in Planting by Matsuda, from the mother mourning the loss of her stillborn infant in The Child Over There to a lonely older woman finding some kind of connection with the younger generation in Summer Blanket. What is very Japanese about these stories, if we can make any cultural generalisations, is the subtle, slant way of telling things. None of that ‘drumming home the point’ that we often get in what I like to call the MFA class of contemporary American short stories.

Having said that, my favourite story is probably The Otter, the one that follows the most typical Western-style short story format. (It was written in 1980, shortly before the death of the author in a plane crash). It is the only one where the main protagonist is an elderly man, whose pride and joy is his garden, a rare thing in an urban environment. He likes to sit on the veranda and admire it at dusk. He has been resisting his wife’s suggestion that he should sell off part of the plot of land to a developer to build a block of flats. But then he has a stroke and his wife takes matters into her own hands.

Throughout the story, Takuji compares his wife to an otter – he feels real affection for the energy with which she tackles most things, how lively and captivating she is. How easily she proffers little white lies to the travelling salesmen who come knocking at their door. In Japanese the word for otter is ‘kawauso’ (which is written throughout the story in hiragana rather than any kanji – significantly so, because kawauso also sounds like ‘kawaii + uso’ – which could mean ‘cute lies’). But then he remembers a painting entitled The Otters’ Carnival:

Otters are wanton in their destructiveness: they sometimes kill more fish than they can possibly eat, and lay them out on display. That kind of display is sometimes called an otters’ carnival.

In layer after layer of recollections, almost a list of the things he admires but also finds a little frustrating about his wife, he begins to realise what shaky foundations his life has been built upon.

Stories that felt like a breath of fresh air. I was transported to a Japanese seashore, was wrapped in a light summer blanket, and planted away my fear…

Cultural Plans for 2019

I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.

Reading

If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.

I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.

There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.

Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.

Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!

I’ll still be following the Asymptote Blog, with its frequent interviews with translators and writers, and literary news from around the world.

Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.

Writing

I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.

Other Plans

Manon publicity shot by Jason Bell, English National Ballet.

I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.

Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.

No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.

I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.

One example of a Landmark Trust property which has caught my eye.

The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.

So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.

Part 4 of #HayFestival: Translations

What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…

Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.

Liliana Colanzi and Carlos Fonseca being kind enough to pose. Felipe Restrepo Pombo on the left is chatting to Daniel Hahn.

The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).

The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’

Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.

The second panel: from left to right, Ignacio (? – translator, though not much needed), Emiliano Monge, Claudia Ulloa, Laia Jufresa and Daniel Hahn.

What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.

What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.

Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’

If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).

The flower arrangements were beautiful throughout.

The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.

Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vasquez – apologies for the blurry picture.

They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.

Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.

Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.

 

 

Part 2 of #HayFestival: The Prize Winners

However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!

Olga listens to Jennifer reading that wonderful passage about the English language (will refer to it later in my review, because I LOVED it).

I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.

First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights  was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.

Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.

The International Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!

I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.

Forgot to take a picture of this panel, so you’ll have to make do with a gratuitous generic picture.

They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.

‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)

‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)

Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?

I loved the baaing of these sheep as I picked up my car in the evening.

 

Journey Under the Midnight Sun for #TranslationThurs

Keigo Higashino has emerged as a Japanese crime writer to whom Western audiences seem able to relate. That could be both a good and a bad thing. It means there are enough twists and moments of suspense to meet Western expectations of crime fiction, with perhaps less of the ‘coldness’ that readers often remark in Japanese fiction (which I think often has something to do with the translation and lack of context). On the other hand, it could mean that the writer is making too many concessions to appeal to someone outside their culture.

This is certainly not the case here. After the comparatively short (300 or so pages) psychological thrillers such as The Devotion of Suspect X, Malice or Salvation of a Saint, all of which seem to take place over a matter of a few days/weeks and be tightly focused on a small cast of characters, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a sprawling epic 530 page door-stopper with a massive cast of characters over a 20+ year time frame. No concessions are made at all to the non-Japanese reader – despite the best efforts of the translator, some of the events and cultural subtleties might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Japan to follow.

The middle-aged owner of a pawnshop in 1970s Osaka is found murdered on an abandoned building site. Detective Sasagaki discovers some promising leads, but it all ultimately leads to nothing and 20 years later he is still unable to find the perpetrator or make any arrests. In the meantime, the son of the murder victim and the daughter of the main suspect (whose guilt was never proved) grow up, move away and we see how other people wander in and out of their lives, and how that murder still has repercussions many years later.

Not quite the site, but similar in atmosphere, Abandoned Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory, from Abandoned Kansai.

It took me a while to get into the story, and not because of the similar-sounding Japanese names (a common complaint amongst reviewers, which is a bit like saying that all Asian people look the same – in Kanji they would all be quite different and have very varied meanings). It took three days to cover the first three chapters because I couldn’t spot any connections, it somehow didn’t click – but then, when it did, when I started to suspect what was going on (a bit of it but not everything) it took me just a night to finish the rest. As you become immersed in the world Higashino creates, as you start to sympathise with the secondary characters and hope that they won’t come to harm (the author has no compulsion about preserving any of his narrators, so you never know who is going to have what fate, which adds to the sense of suspense), you just can’t stop reading. A fresco of Japanese life from 1973 to about 1992, the book can be read on many levels: enough twists and turns to satisfy a crime fiction addict, but also plenty of social commentary, psychological insight, and subtle, sly asides. It’s a crime novel that breaks all the rules – we begin to know the perpetrators quite early on, we read to see what they can get away with, yet there is always more to uncover. There is depth of pain and sadness here which is conveyed with a light touch, not at all belaboured. Yes, it’s long, but I found it quite riveting and all the details add to the carefully crafted puzzle and characterization.

I really enjoyed this – and would love to hear what someone who is not a Japan aficionado makes of it. Oh, and why the title? It comes from this quote:

We all know how sun rises and sets at a certain time each day. In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it’s not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole life. When people talk about being afraid, what they’re afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade, that’s why they are frightened.

What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.