Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

Mathilda – Black, queer, working-class – is someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider. She has a periodic need to Escape her life: to reinvent herself, even taking on a new name. She has Transfixions, historical figures with whom she feels a deep spiritual connection. She’s also particularly interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s London. 

A chance find in Mathilda’s volunteer role at the National Portrait Gallery leads her to a new Transfixion: Hermia Druitt, a Black modernist poet. Mathilda finds her way on to a residency in the European town of Sun, where Hermia eventually lived. There, Mathilda meets a kindred spirit named Erskine-Lily, and seeks to uncover what happened to Hermia and the cult that she founded. 

LOTE is a fun to read, with its central mystery to be solved, and the way Mathilda shows up the absurdities of the residency. It’s not clear at first whether the foundation behind the residency is for artists or business people. Their outlook is very different from Mathilda’s, but she finds that she can bluff her way through. 

Hermia Druitt is fictitious, but stands in for analogous marginalised or ‘forgotten’ figures from history. Shola von Reinhold expands on Mathilda’s story by including passages from an (also fictitious) academic text called Black Modernisms, and from what seems to be a direct account of the poet’s life. 

By looking into the story of Hermia Druitt, Mathilda is also able to remake herself. LOTE takes apart received views of art and history (and art history) to create its own space for other voices to be heard.

Published by Jacaranda Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It’s nine years since I last read Alice Zeniter: Take This Man was a compelling tale of a young Frenchwoman preparing to marry a friend in order to stop him being deported. The Art of Losing (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is a longer novel on a bigger canvas: a saga tracing a line between the Algerian War of Independence and contemporary France, and inspired by the author’s own family history. 

Zeniter’s novel follows three generations, each with a different relationship to Algeria. In the 1950s, Ali is a landowner who fought on the side of France in World War Two. But when the National Liberation Front comes to his village, he is forced into a position of complicity, which leads him to a resettlement camp in France. 

Ali remains tied to Algeria, but his son Hamid turns his back on the country, determined to forge a life for himself in France. In turn, Hamid’s daughter Naïma has no knowledge of Algeria, nor the language to communicate with her grandparents. She has to make a journey of her own to uncover the past and make sense of her history. 

The Art of Losing highlights the personal histories that may fall through the gaps in official (colonial) accounts. It asks how people may carry on in the face of profound loss, and how they might regain what has been lost. 

Published by Picador.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič, Alindarka’s Children (2014)
Translated from the Russian and Belarusian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid (2020)

This novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič is an act of assertion, perhaps even reclamation. It begins with Alicia and Avi, two children interred in a camp whose purpose is to ‘correct’ their language, make them speak Russian rather than Belarusian. The children’s father helps them escape, and they flee into the forest, though the camp leaders won’t let them go that easily…

There’s a fairytale atmosphere to this story, with the mysterious forest seeming almost a character in its own right – the children even come across a gingerbread house of sorts. It’s also a novel about language: we meet the camp’s Doctor who seeks medical ‘cures’ for what he sees as the speech defect of Belarusian. Speaking Belarusian – and writing the novel partly in that language – then becomes an act of resistance. ⁣

This carries over to the translation, which is an act of assertion in its own right. The Russian in the original appears as English in the translation, but the Belarusian has been translated on into Scots. It’s an idea that preserves the power relationship between the two languages of the original – not to mention that it forces readers of the ‘dominant’ language to work harder.⁣

There are also lines of Belarusian poetry scattered throughout the book. Rather than being translated, these have been substituted for Scots poetry. I have to admit the use of Scots sometimes left me seeing the characters as more Scottish than Belarusian – your mileage may vary. Still, I found Alindarka’s Children a thought-provoking piece of work.

Published by Scotland Street Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions are the only publisher to have won the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice, so it’s no surprise to see them longlisted again this year. (My copy of The Appointment looks different from the usual Fitzcarraldo blue – I won it in a competition, one of five copies with a cover painted by Katharina Volckmer.) ⁣

The narrator of this short volume is a German in London. She has come to the office of one Dr Seligman for an appointment whose nature is at first unspecified. The book we read is her monologue as addressed to him. ⁣

The narrator begins by revealing some of her fantasies (let’s say that they involve Hitler and leave it there), and continues to unburden herself. It becomes clear that she is profoundly uncomfortable in her body and with her nationality (feeling, for example, that Germany has not reckoned with its past as well as it may like to think). The former source of discomfort is what this appointment is meant to address; the latter one is why the narrator has approached a Jewish doctor. ⁣

The Appointment is densely written, often harrowing, and often drily funny – it shifts mood along with its narrator. There’s a sense that all this – the appointment, and the monologue form itself – is the narrator’s way of taking control. The space of the doctor’s office is private, and by being the one to speak, the narrator can shape what she says, what she reveals about herself. She feels that this is her time and space, and hopefully the chance for a new beginning.⁣

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: the longlist

I promised myself that this year I would read the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist. I’ve always found it an interesting prize to follow, and I’ve enjoyed the last few months as a subscriber to their book of the month – but I’ve never actually read along with it. Time to change that.

The 2021 longlist was announced yesterday, and here’s what we’ve got:

  • A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)
  • The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)
  • Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Blingen (Ignota Books)
  • LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
  • Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)
  • Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)
  • A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

To date, I’ve read four of those and reviewed three (links above). Mordew was one of my favourite books from last year. Mr. Beethoven and The Mermaid of Black Conch were not far behind. The other one I’ve read so far is A Musical Offering, which is so far away from what I’d usually read that I didn’t really appreciate it properly – so a re-read is in order.

I love that, even though I’ve become reasonably knowledgeable about small presses over the years, the Republic of Consciousness can still shine a light on books and publishers I’ve never heard of. Well, it’s time to get acquainted.

Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz

Afonso Cruz, Kokoschka’s Doll (2010)
Translated from the Portuguese by Rahul Bery (2021)

I like it when a novel challenges me to work out why it takes the form that it does. Kokoschka’s Doll challenged me in that me. I kept mulling over such questions as: why is a third of it given over to a novel-within-a-novel of the same title, with pages tinted grey? Why does it go off on so many tangents, with characters who might (at first) seem disconnected? What’s the importance of the title, when the doll in question appears relatively briefly and late on? 

Well, it took me until I had finished the book before I felt I had a handle on why Kokoschka’s Doll is the way it is. But it was never less than compelling for all that.

We begin in wartime Dresden. In a brief, harrowing passage, young Isaac Dresner runs away from a German soldier, and takes refuge in the cellar of a bird shop owned by one Bonifaz Vogel. When Vogel hears a voice coming from the floorboards, he assumes he’s hearing mice. But there’s a quiet authority in that voice, and in time Isaac comes to act as Vogel’s conscience. When he emerges from the cellar at war’s end, Isaac is both a son- and father-figure to Vogel, in different ways. 

As an adult, Isaac has become a publisher. He meets an author named Mathias Popa, who writes a book called Kokoschka’s Doll which has several fluid layers of reality, including a version of Isaac Dresner as a character.

The novel’s title refers to the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a three-year romance with Alma Mahler (the composer’s widow). When the affair ended, Kokoschka remained so infatuated with Alma that he commissioned a life-size replica of her. The key point for this novel, I think, is that Kokoschka had his servant spread rumours about the doll as though it had its own social life – because the doll could only ever be considered ‘real’ if it had its own social reality, and other people to witness that. 

This is what I take away as the main theme of Kokoschka’s Doll: that everyone’s connected, no one complete without other people. So, for example, Isaac’s voice helps complete Vogel as a person, and Vogel does the same for Isaacs. That’s why there’s no single, stable account of life for most of Cruz’s characters – because there isn’t a single, stable life to begin with. 

The theme of interconnectedness comes together poignantly at the end. After this, I look forward to reading more by Afonso Cruz in the future. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Looking for Bono by Abidemi Sanusi

Abidemi Sanusi draws on her background as a human rights worker for this sharp look at celebrity. Life is going nowhere much for fiftysomething Baba in the Lagos slum of Palemo. That is, until he sees a news report: Bono is in Africa to speak at a summit. Here, thinks Baba, is a man who can get leaders to listen to him. Baba resolves to meet Bono (whom he calls ‘Mosquito Man’ from the shape of his dark glasses) and tell him about the water shortages in Palemo.

A friend phones the local radio station to tell them about Baba’s plan… and suddenly everyone becomes interested: a journalist, a campaigning charity, even the company behind the problems with water supply – not to mention Baba’s wife Munira, who dreams of making it in Nollywood. So Baba becomes a cause célèbre in his own right, as different parties see what advantage they might gain from him. Looking for Bono is great fun to read, and has serious points to make about access to resources, and how we effect change. 

Published by Jacaranda Books.

The Storm by Akeem Balogun

The stories in Akeem Balogun’s debut collection are loosely linked by an extreme storm that belongs more to the world of metaphor than weather. The tone is set by the opening title story, which sees Seun mostly stuck at his workplace because of the storm, which has been raging for weeks. It provides a vivid example of people becoming separated, as Seun ventures out to check that his father is OK. 

Balogun often explores the effects these extraordinary events have had on his characters. One of my favourite examples is ‘A Stroke of Madness’. This is the story of Amri, whom we mostly see in conversation with either his work colleague Carl or his daughter Kali. All seems mundane at first, but we learn that Amri’s sister Adea vanished in the storm twenty years previously. Only gradually do we see how deeply this has left a mark on Amri. When he learns that a block of flats is due to be built on the park where Adea went missing, he sees this as an affront to her memory – which leads him to desperate measures…

The collection also heads off in several different directions. ‘Room Four’ is one of a number of stories revolving around advanced technology. In this piece, banking is done through interaction with an AI avatar; Balogun’s protagonist struggles with its attempts to dissuade him from making rash decisions. ‘Marc Populaire’ is told entirely through voice messages left to the title character, leading readers to piece together their own story of what has happened to Marc. 

The Storm is a fine introduction to Balogun’s work, and to the publisher Okapi Books. I look forward to seeing what they do in future.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

***

Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

My favourite books read in 2020

2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.

12. The Blessed Girl (2017) by Angela Makholwa

One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.

11. Arkady (2018) by Patrick Langley

The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.

10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

8. Bina (2019) by Anakana Schofield

A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.

7. Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) by Gabriel Josipovici

Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.

6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love. 

5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences. 

4. Mordew (2020) by Alex Pheby

A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing. 

3. The Nacullians (2020) by Craig Jordan-Baker 

Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating. 

2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read. 

1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)

I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this. 

***

That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?

My previous yearly selections of favourite books are all here: 2019, 2018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. I’ll be back on the blog in the New Year, and you can also find me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: