#WITMonth: The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja

On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.

It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:

How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.

This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.

Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.

The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.

The Pine Islands at Matsushima.

I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.

There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.

I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.

#WITMonth: Fernanda Torres

My foray into Brazilian women writers continues apace with an author who has been recommended by many other Latin American authors (at the Hay Festival panels, for instance). Fernanda Torres is an actress, scriptwriter and novelist. Her debut novel The End is a witty depiction of beach bum culture and machismo, and it has been translated by Alison Entrekin for Restless Books in the US. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t reached this side of the Atlantic.

Ciro, Neto, Alvaro, Silvio and Ribeiro are five aging Carioca friends, who have either grown up together or got to know each other at university. The book has an interesting structure: we enter the minds of each one of the five in reverse chronological order of their death. We see them old and decrepit, hear their regrets, witness their deaths… and then get to see and hear what their wives, their sons and daughters, their friends their doctors and their priest thought of them. We get a flashback into their lives and their friendship, their marriages, their divorces, their affairs, their triumphs, regrets and disappointments. We see many of the same events, the parties, the seductions, the quarrels, the missed opportunities through five different pairs of eyes – and quite often from the point of view of their long-suffering wives.

For these are clearly men of the older generation, who expect to get away with anything. Ciro is the charismatic Don Juan, emulated by all, but is the first to die. Neto is the only one of them who tries to be faithful to his beloved wife Celia (and she tries to remove him from his circle of friends) – but is left a widower and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself after that. Ribeiro spent his whole life on the beach, proud of his good looks, terrified of aging. Now he’s resorted to giving volleyball lessons to old ladies and stuffing himself with Viagra. Silvio is addicted to sex orgies and drugs and cannot stop himself from carrying on with his friend’s girlfriend, even though he is married. Alvaro is the one who survives them all and he has become a grumpy old man. Modern life and habits only annoy him.

I don’t separate my trash, I don’t recycle, I throw cigarette butts in the toilet, I use aerosols, I take long hot showers, and I brush my teeth with the water running. Screw mankind. I won’t be around to see what happens. I haven’t voted in theirteen years, I’m not responsible for the tragedy around me.

Alvaro is impotent: both literally and metaphorically. And of course he blames others for his predicament. His is the first story and in many respects his monologues are the funniest. We’ve all met Alvaros like that.

It was women who made me lose interest. Nagging, snivelling, needy. Women love to blame their own unhappiness on the next person. I never let them drag me in. The minute they get one sign of life from you, they shoot off a three-page monologue in your ear. Boy, can they talk, they never get sick of yakety-yakking… I don’t like women. Truth be told, I don’t like anyone. I did like Neto, Ciro, Silvio, and Ribeiro, though. Men don’t talk. We each say something idiotic, we laugh, we drink, and there you have it: a great night.

Men’s friendships seem puzzling to me at times. I have male friends who are excellent friends and who can talk about anything, including their feelings. But very often I look at the friendships based on drinking beer, playing video games and watching football matches, while avoiding anything but the most superficial exchange of information regarding their personal lives and I wonder. Replace beer with cachaca and qualudes, video games with beach life – and you have that mysterious default of life itself, shared experience, growing old together even if you don’t have much in common, which Fernanda Torres manages to capture with what feels me to like great authenticity.

There are plenty of laughable, cringe-worthy moments to divert readers. But, as we get to see the other perspectives, the satire acquires additional layers of depth and the comedy turns into tragicomedy. Are all of these men losers who deserve their come-uppance, or are all of our lives full of mistakes and bad choices?

The famous wave pattern of Copacabana beach, about which Alvaro says: ‘Stupid mosaics. They’re everywhere. Pour some concrete over the top and send on the steamrollers!’

A book soaked in the atmosphere of Rio and Copacabana beach (which appears in the very first paragraph), yet with universally recognisable ideas of masculinity and looking back at life with regret.

#WITMonth: Socorro Acioli

I’m sticking predominantly to Brazilian women writers this month, as the Women in Translation Month coincides with my Brazilians in August. The first of the authors is new to me. Socorro Acioli writes mainly children’s (or YA) literature, and this book The Head of the Saint, translated by Daniel Hahn, illustrated by Alexis Snell and published by Hot Key Books, seems to be targeted at the YA market. This does surprise me somewhat – although I know YA readers can be quite sophisticated, the subject matter here (all about poverty and corruption, religion as the opium of the masses, marriage and gender expectations) does not seem to hold much appeal for that kind of audience. It’s the first of Acioli’s books to be translated into English, and the reason that they were brave enough to do it has perhaps something to do with the fact that she developed the story for it while attending a writers workshop hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez some years ago.

Samuel is a young orphan, with ‘a thin, hungry body, almost a shadow’. He has been walking for days, ten hours a day, barefoot, nearly starving, because he has promised his recently deceased mother to go the town she originally came from, find his grandmother and father, and light a candle at the feet of the town’s patron saint. [There is a fashion in Brazil for giant statues on hills outside towns, like the statue of Christ in Rio.]

This is St Francis rather than St Anthony, and in a different location, but it gives you an idea of what we are talking about.

The problem is that when he reaches the god-forsaken town of Candeia, his grandmother chases him away, the giant statue of St Anthony has lost its head and the town appears all but abandoned, because the saint is believed to be cursed.

Samuel finds shelter from a thunderstorm in the head of the saint, which has rolled down to the bottom of the hill (although we will soon find out, in a very funny story, that it had not ‘fallen off’ but was a construction error and never made it to the top of the statue in the first place). He is bitten by dogs and unable to move for a while, so he believes he is starting to hallucinate when he hears voices singing and praying.

It turns out that a small group of women do still believe that St Anthony can help them to find their true love and get married. Samuel and a boy from town whom he befriends, Francisco, set out to make those prayers come true. Lo and behold, they get more and more requests, the saint’s reputation is transformed and Candeia starts to come alive again. This continues even when it’s discovered that Samuel was the person behind the ‘miracles’ (although some of the miracles are never fully explained, they just seem to happen as people start feeling more positive about things).

There is more to the story: Samuel finding out about his family background, and his quest to find the mysterious voice who fills his ears with a dream-like song in a language he doesn’t fully understand. There are funny moments – the origin of the name Madeinusa, for example – and poignant ones: families abandoned, men cheating, corrupt mayors, hired men to beat up people. Yet through it all, Samuel holds steadfast to the promise he made to his dying mother.

The book is described as ‘charming and heart-warming’, and it does have some similarities with Jorge Amado’s depiction of life – cheerful and energetic, despite the deep social inequalities. There is also something of the practical, straight-talking characters from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series there. But, as with nearly all Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, magic and dreams and surreal situations are only a heartbeat away.

Nominations for #WIT Top 100

Women in Translation Month is coming up very soon, and for this year, the founder and host of #WITMonth Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. You are all invited to take part, if you follow some basic rules:

I’ve selected ten books that instantly came to mind, without me having to go through my bookshelves in detail. I could have chosen so many more, but these are ones that have really changed my world, shaken my foundations, taught me what it means to be a woman and an artist and other such fundamental things. And, instead of telling you what the book is ‘about’, I will just give you a 3 word (or thereabouts) summary and a quote from each.

Looking at the list, I guess none of them are really cheerful, happy books, are they?

Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) – bourgeois turns bohemian

 I had wanted myself to be boundless, and I had become as shapeless as the infinite. The paradox was that I became aware of this deficiency at the very moment when I discovered my individuality; my universal aspiration had seemed to me until then to exist in its own right; but now it had become a character trait: ‘Simone is interested in everything.’ I found myself limited by my refusal to be limited.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) – meeting, connecting, empathy

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?

Veronique Olmi: Bord de mer (Beside the Sea) – depressed mother, heartbreak

You force yourself to live as best you can, but everything keeps fading away. You wake up in the morning but that morning no longer exists, just like the evening preceding it, forgotten by everyone. You inch forward on a cliff edge, I’ve known that for a while. One step forward. One step in the abyss. Then you start over again. To go where? No one knows. No one cares.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina – victim of imagination or men?

Some people live and some people contemplate others living. I am amongst those who contemplate. And you?

Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) – shining prince ages

You that in far-off countries of the sky can dwell secure, look back upon me here; for I am weary of this frail world’s decay.

Yosano Akiko: Midaregami (Tangled Hair) – poetry of female desire

A star who once

Within night’s velvet whispered

All the words of love

Is now a mortal in the world below —

Look on this untamed hair!

Clarice Lispector: Complete Short Stories – capricious, scintillating, sad

Mama, before she got married… was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about… liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter.

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Drumul acuns (The Hidden Way) – social critique of inter-war Romania

The snobbery of Papadat-Bengescu’s protagonists is a defining trait of the Romanian bourgeoisie, of humble and precarious origin, without any aristocratic ancestry, and therefore keen to integrate into top-tier society at any price, either by falsifying their family history or by making unjustifiable moral compromises.

Critique from Autorii.com

Gabriela Adamesteanu: Dimineata pierduta (Lost Morning) – political family saga

How little of what lies within us we are able to convey through words! And how few of those words are received by others. And yet we keep on talking, firm in the belief that the sun of rationality will light up our souls… Otherwise, what would our lives be like if we view conversations as being as complicated as blood transfusions? It’s only when we’re at our lowest ebb that we are haunted by this suspicion, but we cast this suspicion aside as soon as we possibly can.

Marina Tsvetaeva: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul (or any other of her poetry) – quirky, passionate, ruthless

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!

Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

#WITMonth: Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.

It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!

Tsvetaeva in 1917.

So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet

(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time

stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most

indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.

For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.

Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
the rowanberry…

Moscow in 1917.

However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:

The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’

‘Write at night!’

In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.

The highest tribute of an artist  – to an artist.

She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of  her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:

Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…

Typical communal flat kitchen in Soviet Russia, taken from Expatica website.

She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:

There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)

Another young Marina Tsvetaeva picture, from Odessa Review.

She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:

The difference between the old and new orders:

The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’

Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.

I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:

Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.

These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.

 

Two Crime Novels for #WITMonth

Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.

That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.

Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce

Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.

Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?

Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates

This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.

The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.

As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.

So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.