Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi

​It’s time for my first Latin American choice of this Spanish Lit Month: a collection of short stories by the young Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, published by Dalkey Archive in a smart translation by Jessica Sequeira. These stories inhabit a place where the line between the real and the supernatural stretches thin; they’re animated by the existential tension that this implies. 

In ‘Meterorite’, ranch owner Ruddy has trouble sleeping, a side-effect of his weight loss pills. He has plenty to occupy his mind, too – not least paying off the mother of the peasant boy he took on, who was then kicked in the head by a cow that Ruddy had shot. The boy’s mother said he could “speak with higher beings”; in the days before his injury, the boy had declared that “a fire would appear in the sky to take him away”. Superstitious nonsense, thinks Ruddy – yet, on the night of this story, he believes that he sees the kitchen door move by itself; and there is the meteoroid, burning up in the sky after travelling here for thousands of years. Ruddy is so worked up that it hardly matters to him whether there’s some supernatural agency at work – nor does it matter to the story, which builds up like a storm, then breaks with dread and fury. 

Colanzi’s stories tiptoe back and forth across the line between real and supernatural, merrily smudging it at times. ‘Alfredito’ revolves around the death of the narrator’s schoolfriend. The whole concept of Alfredito being dead feels profoundly wrong to her:

And now I had to get used to the monstrous idea of Alfredito’s dead body, prepared to occupy its place in the cemetery, where it would begin its slow journey to putrefaction. Alfredito, I realized, was no longer the boy running in the countryside with arms outstretched, but was now something else. Would his parents be afraid of his body? Would they be able to touch it, to kiss it? 

“The dead never leave,” says the narrator’s nana; and, throughout the story, Alfredito’s death is never presented as completely final, because the narrator won’t countenance it. We are introduced to a whole cast of friends and family, enough for a novel, in the space of a few pages. This narrative density gives the tale a heightened energy that carries the reader along, and might even allow an impossible door to open… 

In ‘Cannibal’, a couple arrive in Paris to the news that a notorious cannibal is also present in the city, somewhere. The pair are here for an illicit liaison; but first one of them, Vanessa, has some drugs to take to a party. The entire story is told from the viewpoint of Vanessa’s lover, who stays in the hotel, thoughts churning around in his mind. His fears over what might happen to Vanessa fold back into his anxieties about their relationship, and he becomes effectively a cannibal of his own thoughts. This story won the Aura Estrada Prize in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. 

The title story of Our Dead World seems to me to tie the collection together. Its protagonist, Mirka, has taken a lifetime contract with the Martian Lottery, working on the colony for the next round of inhabitants. She has left behind her partner Tommy, but their old life won’t let go of her so easily. Neither will Earth itself: she keeps hallucinating the presence of deer and other animals on Mars. In this story, you have the mingling of real and supernatural; prose woven into a dense tapestry (dialogue between Mirka and Tommy is embedded within the Mars-set text); and a concern with human emotions (the title ‘Our Dead World’ could refer as easily to Mirka’s relationship with Tommy as to Earth or Mars).

I’ve enjoyed reading Colanzi’s stories in this collection, and I hope there will be more to come in English translation. 

Elsewhere 

Read further reviews of Our Dead World at Winstonsdad’s BlogSF in Translation; and Bookmunch

Book details 

Our Dead World (2016) by Liliana Colanzi, tr. Jessica Sequeira (2017), Dalkey Archive Press, 114 pages, paperback (review copy).

Nevada Days – Bernardo Atxaga

Sometimes, choosing to read a book is a matter of trust. Maybe a particular book doesn’t sound as though it would appeal; but if the recommendation comes from a trusted source, or the book is by a favourite author, that might be enough to persuade one to give the book a try. 

In the case of Nevada Days, I was trusting the publisher. Bernardo Atxaga was a new writer to me; this book is a fictionalised memoir covering the nine months he spent as writer-in-residence of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno. On the face of it, this probably isn’t the kind of book I would choose to introduce myself to a writer’s work – but I trust MacLehose Press to publish interesting books, and it worked before with Per Olov Enquist’s The Wandering Pine, so why not?

Anyway, I took a chance; and I’m glad I did.

Atxaga arrives in Reno on 18 August 2007, with his wife Ángela (who will be conducting research there) and their daughters Sara and Izaskun. They move into a small house used by the university to lodge visiting writers. We are soon introduced to a core cast of vivid secondary characters, including Mary Lore Bidart, director of the Center for Basque Studies; Bob Earle, the exuberant retired academic who becomes the Atxagas’ new neighbour; and Dennis, the university IT officer with a fascination for insects. 

Along with his work at the university, Atxaga makes a number of trips into the desert and further afield. All adds up to make Nevada Days an engrossing travelogue. Here is Atxaga reflecting on the mountains in the Nevada desert, in one of the letters to his friend L. that appear throughout the text:

Looking at those mountains – far, far, far away, so far away that the most distant ones looked like mere maquettes – I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying. I understood then that the mountains were in a different place entirely. They weren’t distant from me in the way a bird in Sicily is distant from a tree in Nevada, but, as I said, in a different place entirely.

(translation by Margaret Jull Costa) 

I chose this extract because it highlights something I was constantly reminded of while reading Nevada Days: namely, that Atxaga’s account is a shaped version of reality. In this passage, he’s working through the process of finding the right words to capture his experience. 

But Nevada Days is also organised in a way that lends it certain themes. One that stands out to me is moral ambivalence, introduced when Atxaga’s daughters feel sorry for King Kong when he is shot at the end of the film; and again for a drug trafficker whom they see being arrested:

What connection was there between justice and compassion? How far should society go to protect itself? What should the city do with King Kong? 

Atxaga peppers his account of Nevada with memories and stories of the Basque Country; these tend to illustrate examples of where the line between right and wrong might be blurred. For instance, he tells of the famed Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun, presenting him as an ambivalent figure, celebrated as a fighter but also later known as a strong supporter of Franco. Atxaga also recounts how he himself was out dancing and meeting girls as a teenager at the same time as his autistic cousin José Francisco was struggling in his residential school, where one day he swallowed some pieces of metal that killed him. The author asks if his younger self should be blamed for being indifferent to his cousin, when he was essentially following urges that young people have. No answer is forthcoming. 

After Atxaga’s main account of Reno is finished, a couple of further sections serve to tie up the book thematically and cast it in a new light. The author includes phone calls home to his elderly mother in the main text; and, though these are often amusing, it’s still clear enough that something serious is going on. A closing chapter recounts her funeral: it’s structured in the same way as the main text – present-day narration mixed with stories and memories – but intercut much more rapidly. This chapter suggests that an extraordinary event such as a death in the family takes us to its own separate place, and only gradually do we return to our everyday lives. The pace and choppiness of the chapter create that sense of experiencing a heightened reality. But mirroring the structure of the main text suggests that the period represented by the book may have been a “separate place” in reality for Atxaga and his family. 

Closing Nevada Days is a series of document extracts that close off two narrative strands from the main text: a string of sexual assaults and a murder on campus; and the disappearance of the adventurer Steve Fossett. Both of these have previously been left open like plot strands in a novel – and they’ve had the same narrative tension – but their sudden, matter-of-fact closure reinforces that reality doesn’t have the arrangement of fiction after all. In a way, we’re also back to the theme of moral ambivalence, asking whether it’s right to gain narrative pleasure from such real events. But then, that’s what fiction naturally enables, isn’t it? But then again… 

Considering that I was unsure of giving Nevada Days a whirl in the first place, the reading of it (and, indeed, the writing of this review) has given me so much to think about, I feel very happy to have taken the chance. I must also mention the design:this book is published as part of the new ‘MacLehose Press Editions’ series, in a handsome trade paperback (large, but not too large) with flaps. I’m glad to have Nevada Days a worthy addition to my library; and, actually, I think it will be a good starting point for exploring more of Bernardo Atxaga’s work. 
T 

Stu has also reviewed Nevada Days over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

Nevada Days (2013) by Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (2017), MacLehose Press, 342 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Dead Writers in Rehab – Paul Bassett Davies: a snapshot review

Debauched writer Foster James wakes one day in what appears to be a rehabilitation clinic, with no memory of how he got there. Adding to the mystery, the other patients are all famous writers – Ernest Hemingway, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Parker, and others. But those writers are all dead… aren’t they? If so, what does that make Foster, who certainly feels alive? The secret to this place may lie with the strange figure glimpsed at the edge of the grounds… or perhaps with the on/off romance between the clinic’s two doctors.

Paul Bassett Davies has written for film, television and radio; Dead Writers in Rehab is his second novel, recently published by Unbound. It’s a splendid dark comedy: most of the chapters are in the form of patients’ “recovery diaries”, so you’ve got a parade of pastiche voices that is a joy to read. But, just when you think you have the novel pinned down, it reveals a serious heart – and changes shape more than once.

Dead Writers in Rehab determinedly follows its own path, which is a quality I love in fiction. In short, this book is a delight.

A version of this review was originally published on Twitter. 

Book details 

Dead Writers in Rehab (2017) by Paul Bassett Davies, Unbound, 273 pages, ebook (review copy). 

The Cut – Anthony Cartwright: a snapshot review

The Cut is the second title in the “Peirene Now!” series (following breach), fictions commissioned by Peirene Press to respond to current events. It is Peirene’s Brexit novel, set in Anthony Cartwright’s hometown of Dudley, which voted decisively to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.
Cartwright explores the issues around Brexit through two main characters: Grace, a documentary maker from Hampstead, who has gone to Dudley to interview people for her new film; and Cairo, a boxer who works cleaning up industrial sites and becomes Grace’s principal interviewee.

Both characters have their preconceptions challenged over the course of the novel. Grace has ideas of what her film’s narrative will be, but the reality she finds in Dudley is too complex and nuanced for that. Cairo makes clear that there’s a whole way of life which has declined over the years, for many different reasons. There’s a real sense of a situation that is almost too complex to articulate — hence the tendency to appeal to overly simplistic explanations.

For his part, Cairo finds that Grace is not quite the out-of-touch tourist that he’d assumed; instead, her arrival gives him a genuine opportunity to reflect and reconsider, to think that life could be something different after all. By focusing in on a few characters, Cartwright is able to illuminate a matter like Brexit on a human scale. The Cut is a sharp novel indeed.
A version of this review was previously published on Twitter. 

Book details 

The Cut (2017) by Anthony Cartwright, Peirene Press, 129 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor: a Shiny New Books review 

Jon McGregor is a key contemporary writer for me, so it was a great pleasure to review his latest novel for Shiny New Books. Reservoir 13 examines a rural community in the aftermath of a disappearance – both immediately and in the longer term.
So much of the novel lies in experiencing its language that my novel revolves around a couple of extended quotations. I hope you find it interesting to read; and, of course, that you’ll go on to read Reservoir 13, which is typically excellent stuff from McGregor.

Click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Reservoir 13 (2017) by Jon McGregor, Fourth Estate, 336 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review).

Breathing into Marble – Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė: a EuroLitNetwork review

I have a short review up at European Literature Network of Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s Breathing into Marble. It’s a dark family drama, and the first title published by Noir Press, which specialises in contemporary Lithuanian fiction. I won’t say much more, except that the book is warmly recommended. 

Book details 

Breathing into Marble (2006) by Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2016), Noir Press, 192 pages, paperback (review copy) 

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