#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

Reading and Reviewing Summary 13/08/18

This is a continuation of yesterday’s weekly summary, which was threatening to become far too long. I’ve been trying to curb my book buying, but I cannot quite boast of unalloyed success in this matter. I have borrowed more from the library as well. Netgalley has also reared its ugly (I mean beautiful, tempting) head, although my feedback ratio is still only 60%.

Sent for review:

Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo

This was my introduction to Izzo and remains my favourite of his Marseille trilogy. Something which really shouts out in all its dark, joyous, dirty, tasty, messy glory ‘Mediterranean noir’. I have it in the French original edition and now I have it in a rather beautiful reissued edition from Europa. And it reminds me that I need to have a holiday in Marseille and Provence with my boys soon.

Books bought:

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf started an extremely valuable thread about Malaysian writers on Twitter (and this is where Twitter’s power for the good is evident). You can catch the whole thread on her website. It inspired me to order at least a couple of the books she mentioned, as this is a part of the world I know very little about. I bought Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, a family saga in gorgeous prose, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, with its links to Japan and the Second World War. Both are chunky books, which should keep me busy for a while. I also finally gave in and got myself another translation of The Brothers Karamazov, so this will be the fifth summer in which I attempt to read it…

Library loans:

Keeping in trend with the #WITMonth, I borrowed Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s Dead Joker (transl. Anne Bruce). Hanne Wilhelmsen is grumpy and exasperating at times, but ahead of the field in so many ways. I’m not going to have time to write a separate review of this book, but I read it in 2 days. Suffice it to say that it’s one of those ‘impossible’ crimes committed by a dead person, and that Hanne’s personal life also takes a turn for the worse.

I also got two very different books, one for a quick read and one because I admire the author’s willingness to experiment: Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer (bonus: location of Austria) and Nicola Barker’s Happy, which is a triumph of typography and graphic publishing.

Netgalley:

I couldn’t resist the Swiss mountaintop hotel location and the And Then There Were None plot similarities, so I downloaded Hanna Jameson’s The Last. The other novel I downloaded is also kind of apocalyptical, but fits in perhaps better with my fascination for ‘dictatorship literature’: The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke, one of the foremost contemporary Chinese writers.

Reviews:

I have reviewed three books for #WITMonth already, which is a proud achievement in just over a third of the month. Two are on my blog: the dark Norwegian tale of descent into mental hell Zero and a Brazilian attempt to reconstruct memories and reconcile oneself with the past I Didn’t Talk. The third review is of Teresa Solana’s irreverent and utterly zany collection of short stories The First Prehistoric Serial Killer on Crime Fiction Lover.

#WITMonth

I still need to review Lucy Fricke, but I have three more books lined up for Women in Translation, so am doing better than I had hoped (I think I planned about 5 overall for the month of August, and now it looks like I might have 8). I’m in the midst of Tsvetaeva’s diary, and will embark soon upon Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir and Veronique Olmi  La Nuit en vérité (untranslated).

 

#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes:  #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.

The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.

So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.

I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.

Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.

Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.

A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.

What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.

 

 

#WITMonth: Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen

One of the privileges of working for a journal for world literature like Asymptote is that I get to know some of the best translators, as well as getting an early peek at some of the things they are working on. When Rosie Hedger, one of the most promising young translators from Norwegian (she has also translated that wonderfully claustrophobic novel The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn), mentioned that she was unsure about the reception her most recent translation would have, because it is bold and mad, I was eager to read it. Additionally, it is published by Nordisk Books, whose previous publication Love/War was equally unusual but intriguing. So thank you very much to Rosie for sending me a copy of the book, but you know me well enough by now to realise that this has in no way swayed me to write positive stuff about it if I didn’t like it.

Luckily, I did like it! In fact, I was so captivated by it, that I read it in a couple of breathless hours sitting in my back garden at the weekend. It is very quick to read, written in something resembling a free verse style (short line breaks), but it’s certainly not an easy read. The unnamed narrator, a young girl with mental health problems, does horrible things to others and to herself; meanwhile, horrible things are done to her too. It is the machine-gun approach to storytelling, or one long, angry howl.

There are quite a few accounts of people suffering from mental health problems in literature, some of them very well-known, such as Girl, Interrupted, The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, others far less so: Down Below by Leonora Carrington or Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. What they all have in common is a very unflattering perspective on daily life in a mental asylum, which is certainly present in this book too. However, all of the other books are written retrospectively, while Zero is written in first person, present tense, like a diary. It feels like speleology, like visiting the dark insides of someone’s ‘defective’ head. We witness each thought as it arises, often contradicting the previous sentence, all the jumps and starts and sudden turns. It can feel like trying to navigate a small boat in very rough seas and my advice would be to just give up navigation and allow yourself to be carried away by the monster waves.

The narrator is entirely self-absorbed. Like any child or adolescent she believes the world revolves around her. And she maintains this belief even as she grows up. Everyone else is described in relation to her. Alcohol, drugs, sex, friendships are consumed as casually as the cigarettes she half-smokes. Her self-hatred and doubt are so all-encompassing that they extend to anyone who loves her and believes in her. She pushes away her mother, her boyfriends, her girlfriend. How can they possibly love someone as screwed up and worthless as herself – that must make them either deceitful or worthless.

Her real problem is that she is so thin-skinned that she has no skin left at all, or as she puts it early on: ‘I absorb everything unfiltered’. At times you want to rush in and protect her, but then her self-destructive gene kicks in and you want to slap her and tell her to get a grip on herself.

I’m lucky to be alive, the doctors say

They’re idiots, every last one of them

They don’t realise that I’m actually very unlucky to be alive

There is no sugar-coating, no attempt at self-justification or excuses in this ‘punk rock’ saga. A doctor tells her that she has too much of the victim mentality, that she is feeling too sorry for herself and refusing to accept any responsibility. Part of the narrator understands and agrees with that, but then the rebellious voice starts shouting and she is unable to remonstrate with her.

Author photo, credit Pernille Marie Walwik.

You might ask yourself how much of this is autobiographical, since the narrator aspires to be an actor, and the author is best known for her acting role in a Norwegian TV series, but it doesn’t really matter. This is the rawest, most believable account of schizophrenia that I have ever come across (at least I assume it is schizophrenia, I’m not a trained doctor, but I’ve had a couple of friends with this affliction). The translation does an excellent job of capturing the fragmented, jolting nature of the work, the repetition, the almost incantatory poetry of it, the breathless present tense. I’m not surprised this won the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Award in 2013 – it is a remarkable and original piece of work.