#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

#WITMonth: No Heaven This… Mieko Kawakami

My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).

Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.

After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)

Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.

When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):

Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.

Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.

There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.

I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.

Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.

When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:

That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.

Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:

Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.

A very different cover for the hardback – which of the two do you prefer?

This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.

One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.

There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.

Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…

But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.

This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.

#WITMonth: Greenland Surprise

Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson, transl. Anna Halagar (from the Danish – the author wrote the novel in Greenlandic, then translated it into Danish herself). Also #20Books of Summer No. 13.

This short novel certainly pushed at the boundaries of what I’d previously read. I’ve never read a book by an author from Greenland (and only one set partly in Greenland, namely Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so it was venturing out into a new geographical territory. Additionally, it is a book about alcohol and partying hard and queer identity in a country which still seems largely homophobic or misogynistic, so not a familiar scene either. In fact, there was one character who turns out to be trans but seemed unaware of it until it was pointed out by someone else, and I wasn’t quite sure if that was true to life, but it left me rather uncomfortable.

The novel is narrated in five chapters, each told from a different point of view, in a very stream of consciousness style, but also in a variety of different formats: letters, diary extracts, newspaper headlines etc.  Fia is the young woman emerging from an unsatisfactory relationship with a man, who to her complete bafflement suddenly finds herself attracted to a woman. Inuk is Fia’s brother, who feels let down by his friends and spouts homophobic superstitions and insults that he has picked up from his environment. Sara and Ivik are a couple, and Sara is conflicted and confused by her instant attraction to Fia, as she wants to be loyal to her girlfriend Ivik, but Ivik herself does not seem to want to be in a sexual relationship with her. Last but not least, Arnaq is Fia’s friend and is somehow linked to all of the others, an inveterate party-goer and alcoholic, who seems to betray everyone’s confidences without any qualms.

So far, so millenial, right? Or maybe not even millenial, for these ‘finding yourself’ stories about the partying lifestyle in your early 20s have appeared in many other literary or film guises, from Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane to the TV series This Life or the more recent It’s a Sin, from Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler to the films American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. What is unique about this book is that it’s not plot driven (there are neither farcical nor grandiloquent dramatic scenes here), that it’s composed mostly of interior monologue, but above all that it takes place not in a big city – but in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland (population 18,800).

Although the young people mix Danish and English phrases into their vocabulary, compared to their counterparts elsewhere, they feel trapped on their island.

You’re on an island that will never change. You’re on an island with no way out. You’re on an island from which you can’t escape. You’re on the completely wrong island…

Out of all of them, it is Inuk who seems most aware of the gap between appearance and reality in Greenland.

You’re a Greenlander when you help develop your country… You’re a Greenlander when you respect your ancestors… You’re a Greenlander when you’re proud of your nationality…

You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic. You’re a Greenlander when you beat your partner… You’re a Greenlander when you suffer from self-loathing. You’re a Greenlander when you’re full of anger…

Our nation, she who is ancient; go to the mountain and never come back… And take your rotten children with you.

The author has quite a knack for describing the angst and failures and regrets of her generation with wry self-irony. There are some clunky passages and conversations, which could be partly the protagonists’ own awkwardness, or the author’s inexperience, or the translator struggling to convey the local feel. The book has the fast, furious pace of dance music, although it is mostly drinking rather than dancing or drugs that this group of people engage in, thinking or talking about sex rather more than actually doing it. They seem stuck in a whirlpool of repetitive, destructive behaviour, in a claustrophobic small town.

I was instantly reminded of the book See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg, where the characters are equally hell-bent on making a mess of their lives. That book was set in oil-rich Stavanger, but the characters seemed equally trapped in poverty, poor education and few viable choices. And yet, surprisingly, it is Crimson that has the more upbeat and hopeful ending, perhaps because the author is young and more optimistic. Not a masterpiece, but perhaps I am too old for this kind of novel. Still, it would be interesting to see what Korneliussen writes next.

Summary of August Reading and Films

Books

Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.

If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.

  1. Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia
  2. Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia
  3. Lina Meruane – Chile
  4. Olga Tokarczuk – Poland
  5. Marlen Haushofer – Austria
  6. Teffi – Russia
  7. Marina Šur Puhlovski – Croatia
  8. Mieko Kawakami – Japan
  9. Fernanda Melchor – Mexico

I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!

In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).

Films

I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!

  1. Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
  2. Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
  3. Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
  4. Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
  5. Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part

I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!

Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?

 

 

 

 

Last #WITMonth book: Hurricane Season is indeed a hurricane

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season, transl. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Someone on Goodreads describes reading Hurricane Season like ‘running downhill’ and that is probably the best description of what it feels like: the mad rush, the acceleration, the inevitability of gravity pulling at you. You get caught up in something inescapable and you cannot stop until you reach the bottom of the hill, whether in one piece or not. This is one of the few instances where I perfectly understand and concur with the author’s choice of syntax and style: eight chapters, eight different voices, and it feels like each chapter is composed of just one very long sentence. In actual fact, there might be more than one, but the overall effect is one of precipitation and agitation, so you cannot put the book down and it propels you along to its terrible conclusion.

Not that the beginning isn’t terrible as well. It starts with some children playing by the canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa and finding the body of the local ‘witch’. The rumours go into overdrive about what could have happened to the person they called the Young Witch, to distinguish her from her mother, who was likewise known as a Witch and to whom all villagers turned to for medicine, potions and fortune-telling. In each chapter we find out more about the murder and the witches themselves, the village and several of its inhabitants, in their own language, via their own unfiltered thoughts.

The breathless, feverish style may make for an exhilarating read, but it’s not a joyful one. You may feel the urge to shower or go for a long walk after being in those people’s heads for a while. Poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and homophobia in the rural area are conveyed with such urgency, that they feel like a blow to your stomach. In the interview with Fernanda Melchor and her translator at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the author says she deliberately set out to shock the audience with the violence of the discourse, to demonstrate that this kind of language, thought and behaviour are not normal, that we cannot be complicit in it. She also said she had to start therapy after finishing the book, because so much work and heart and passion went into it – and I’m not surprised.

What really struck me is how angry each of the characters is – anger is often the way they express their loneliness or desperation or need to be loved. The men, especially, come across as weak, pathetic losers who have to take it out on those weaker than themselves, usually the women and children. The author says she is not excusing the monstrous behaviour of those people, but she wanted to show how monsters are made. And she certainly succeeds. She does not shy away from describing the mud and stench, the lack of opportunities, the small and great betrayals, where even the family no longer represents a safe harbour, and where church and superstition constrain people even more.

If you dislike strong language and graphic descriptions of violence and bodily functions, you are going to struggle with this one. The author used the speech patterns of her own native Veracruz region, but also described how she was inspired by A Clockwork Orange to construct a fictional language that would really highlight the problems. Although I haven’t read Selva Almada’s Dead Girls yet, that book (which is a true crime recount similar to In Cold Blood) would provide and interesting contrast with this fictional insight into femicide, a huge problem in most Latin American countries.

This is a world in which men and women distrust and merely use each other, both sides feeling trapped, not realising that it is society that has entrapped them. The men tell each other:

And there are bitches who go even further, they head into the hills in the rainy season to pick a wildflower shaped like a trumpet… and they brew them into a tea that turns you into a real prick, a real soft touch, brings you to your knees, cowering at their feet like a slave, and you don’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on… They’re all the same, dipshit, all up to the same tricks, all capable of untold fuckery just to hold on to you…’

Meanwhile, the women give each other advice as follows, even though they are talking about their own sons:

Got to keep your wits about you in this world… You drop your guard for a second and they’ll crush you, Clarita, so you better just tell that fuckwit out there to buy you some clothes. Don’t you be anyone’s fool, that’s what men are like: a bunch of lazy spongers who you have to keep rounding up to squeeze any use out of them… you’ve gotta keep men like that on a tight leash, keep them busy to stop them coming out with all their shit.

There are a few, very few glimmers of hope, the tentative possibility of real love – all too often nipped into the bud almost before it has had a chance to blossom. Ultimately, however, this is a horrific read, because it is a horrifying subject: the violence that humans perpetuate against each other, and especially against women. Towards the end of the novel, we realise the full extent of it, the national problem one might call it, as Melchor moves from the specific story to the bird’s eye view of the region.

They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain – and that the hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between rival clans; rapes, suicides, ‘crimes of passion’, as the journalists call them.

But just when you think there is no hope, no escape, when the women in town agree that ‘there’s no treasure in there… nothing more than a searing pain that refuses to go away’, you get the final chapter. Tenderness and a release of sorts, when a gravedigger known only as Grandfather buries the ‘overflow’ bodies from the morgue, the ones for whom there were no more spaces at the cemetery. He seems to be the only one showing some compassion for the poor mutilated bodies, some understanding of all the suffering, and he believes in talking to the dead as he buries them, guiding them into the afterlife. The final words seemed as powerful and elegiac as the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Don’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it… The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever. See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.

So pleased I managed to read this book in the nick of time to include it in the #WITMonth. One that I will be thinking about, uneasily, in years to come.

#WITMonth: Mieko Kawakami

Author photo from Goodreads.

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.

If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.

Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries.  Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi,  the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino,  Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.

So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.

In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.

I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).

As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:

Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.

Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.

Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.

 

#WITMonth: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Croatia

Marina Šur Puhlovski: Wild Woman, transl. by Christina Pribicevich-Zoric

This Croatian novel published by Istros Books was a recent discovery thanks to the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Books. The author is an example of persistence – although she started writing at an early age, she only got published in 1991 after writing no less than nine books. But of course, we all know what happened in Yugoslavia after 1991 – so she ended up at the age of 50 having written all her life, but with very little to show for it. Luckily, her 20th novel, Wild Woman, had some success in Croatia, and has now been translated into English. And the good news is that Wild Woman is just one book in a series depicting the life of a young woman trying to make her way in her society (and in a rapidly disintegrating country).

The protagonist of Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj, is the main character in my three other novels – Nesanica (“Insomnia”), Ljubav (“Love”) and Igrač (“Player”). They represent three lives of the same character, told from different perspectives and through different relationships. In Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj is twenty-seven, in Insomnia – fifty-seven.

In fact, there are five books in total depicting Sofija – a fictionalised version of the author herself – and this has prompted comparisons with Knausgaard. It’s a coming of age novel or a ‘waking up to reality’ which will sound familiar to many women, especially those who grew up in patriarchal societies or who had artistic aspirations. The protagonist looks back on her student years, the death of her drunk and frequently violent father, the hard-working and downtrodden mother, her infatuation and marriage with a lazy, pretentious womaniser.

What was interesting when we discussed the book at the Book Club was that people unfamiliar with socialist societies were wondering why the young couple were still living with their parents, but could afford to eat out and go on holiday to the seaside. I had to explain that there was frequently a housing shortage, you were placed in a queue to get affordable accommation, but that food was cheap and domestic holidays were heavily subsidised for students or by the trade unions. There is also that fraught moment, when the husband turns out to have a brain tumour, that they borrow and beg money to bribe the doctors for an operation… and when the doctor refuses to accept their money, they rejoice that they have some money left for going on holiday to the seaside.

The almost casual mention of domestic violence, how it was almost an expected part of being a woman in that society at that time, as well as how Sofija is constantly urged to ‘stand by her man’ because he has fallen ill, how she supports him pysically, financially, morally, while he has a licence to misbehave, all of this rang very familiar. Socialist society meant women were expected to go out and work as hard as men, but did not necessarily lead to any liberation on the home front. Although atheism was espoused during Communist times, the preceding centuries of Catholicism and Orthodoxism traditions of relegating women to submissive roles did not die instantly (if at all).

The narrator is remarkably frank about the disintegration of the marriage and the hypocrisy of those surrounding them. The voice is raw, angry, naive and cynical by turns, slightly self-pitying – very authentic indeed. This is what she says about her in-laws:

My poor son, Danica moans, crying her eyes out, while France just nods inconsolably, shakes his head and brings her coat so that they can return to the peace and quiet of their own home, or at least the peace and quiet of a place where they don’t have to look at a sick person all day. They don’t have to wait for the next seizure, to jump every time there’s an unexpected sound in the flat, the sudden flushing of the bathroom toilet, the door slammed shut by the wind… they don’t have to tremble if he calls out from his room to the kitchen – not knowing if he needs something or is screaming – and then run over to him, prepared for the worst. Make sure he takes his pills, and if you discover in the middle of the night that he’s run out, go straight to the duty pharmacy, wherever it is, on foot if need be, and get a hold of those pills, even if you have to do it without a prescription.

The description of the yawning gap in their marriage is conveyed in just one long breathless sentence, the perfect furious stream of consciousness:

The sea will restore him, I think, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, he lives with me but is lifeless, like a doll you have to wind up, I make him move, he eats, he walks, he swims, he doesn’t sunbbathe because it’s bad for the angioma, and anyway he has a fair complexion, he doesn’t like the sun, but he drinks, the red wine has been on the table since lunch, he sits, smokes and sips his wine, gazing out at the sea from the shade, and I’m next to him reading, because what else is there when all the joy has gone.

The story is perhaps an all too well-trodden one, but it’s told in a fresh voice, not politely restrained like so much Anglo-Saxon literature is, and from a part of the world where we expect political rather than domestic drama, so I am all for it!

#WITMonth and #20BooksofSummer: Teffi

Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.

Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.

The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.

‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’

Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.

Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:

… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’

Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.

This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…

This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.

This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.

 

 

#WITMonth: Marlen Haushofer

It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.

This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it).  I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.

And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).

Photo of the author on the cover of a biography entitled ‘I’m possibly crazy’, which I think I might have to get…

The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.

The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.

Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.

I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…

[own translation]

It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.

I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.