AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

A pair from Glagoslav

Today I’m looking at two books from Glagoslav Publications, who specialise in Slavic literature. I have a contemporary Russian novel for you, and a Belarusian classic.

Vasil Bykau, Alpine Ballad (1964)
Translated from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (2016)

This is the first Belarusian book I’ve read (in terms of both country and original language). From what I’ve read about him, Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) is one of the most significant figures in Belarusian literature. Glagoslav’s edition of Alpine Ballad is the first English translation to be based on Bykau’s original, uncensored manuscript.

During the later years of World War Two, a bomb explodes in an Alpine concentration camp. Ivan, a Belarusian soldier, makes good his escape. Shortly after, he comes across Giulia, a young Italian woman who was also being held prisoner in the camp. She doesn’t speak a lot of Russian, but through a mixture of that, German and Italian, the two are able to understand each other. We then follow them over the course of a few days as they try to evade capture and reach safety.

Alpine Ballad is a briskly told tale, constantly in motion. Bykau’s action sequences, when Ivan and Giulia are on the run, are gripping. There are also some really affecting moments where it becomes clear how the pair are developing feelings for each other. Giulia has an idealised image of Soviet communism, which Ivan is quick to dispel. This combination of social commentary, romance and action makes Alpine Ballad compelling reading.

Igor Eliseev, One-Two (2016)

Igor Eliseev is a Russian writer who writes in English; One-Two is his debut novel. This is the story of two conjoined sisters named Vera (our narrator) and Nadezhda – or Faith and Hope, as they are referred to throughout the book. The girls spend much of their childhood in a series of dismal institutions, including a foster home whose principal dubs them ‘One’ and ‘Two’, and where they’re subjected to much worse indignities than that. Eventually the sisters run away from the home and head to the city, hoping to find a place for themselves.

One-Two is a harrowing book, as Faith and Hope travel a difficult road. The history of 1980s and ’90s Russia unfolds in the background, and there’s a sense that Eliseev is reflecting this in the personal story of his protagonists. As well as everything that happens to them from without, the girls face their own internal struggles, as their very different personalities come to the fore. There is the tantalising prospect that they may be able to undergo separation surgery, which leads the pair to wonder what it might be like to have their own individual body, for all that the consequences may be drastic. One-Two is an interesting character study, and a powerful tale of personal struggle.

Book details

Alpine Ballad (1964) by Vasil Bykau, tr. Mikalai Khilo (2016), Glagoslav Publications, 206 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

One-Two (2016) by Igor Eliseev, Glagoslav Publications, 244 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading out loud: The Girls of Slender Means

I’ve been intending to read Muriel Spark (last time was The Driver’s Seat) again all year, what with it being her centenary. It took me until the autumn to actually do that, but better late than never…

I’m trying something a bit different with this post, taking inspiration from that Twitter discussion of The Rings of Saturn in the summer. I tweeted my thoughts on The Girls of Slender Means as I was reading it, and am now collecting them together here. I’ve called this “reading out loud” because it’s more off the cuff and impressionistic than a proper review would be. I felt that a ‘known’ book like this could support that kind of post.

To introduce the book briefly: The Girls of Slender Means was first published in 1963. It’s mostly set in 1945, and concerns the May of Teck Club, a London hostel for women aged under 30. I’ve expanded the original tweets a little for clarity, but still I doubt the post below will make much sense if you haven’t read the novel. If you’re looking for a recommendation, though… consider the book recommended!

***

It’s been too long since I last read Muriel Spark. I’m enjoying it from the first sentence: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Instantly recognisable voice: reading it feels like coming home.

Already the narrative is being subtly destabilised (which I’m coming to expect from Spark). The present-day passages feel more like intrusions than an alternative plot strand.

Interesting that present-day passages (which discuss a character’s death) are all telephone conversations. I need to read further to understand what this means, but I’m thinking it’s perhaps a comment on the distance created by that form of communication.

I love the little details that punctuate a scene with humour, such as the arguments over brown wallpaper in the drawing-room, or the frequent soundtrack of lines from Joanna’s elocution lessons.

Just twigged that there’s a theme of missed (or misunderstood) communication: the present-day phone calls that break up, the rote learning of elocution lessons (lines that are repeated but not necessarily felt by the person saying them).

A bomb explodes in the club’s garden towards the end of the book. Interesting that this is explicitly framed as disrupting the girls’ sense of time and space. Time is experienced differently by those trapped inside the club, and those outside who realise how urgent the situation is.

Besides bringing the plot to a point of singularity, the fire seems to bring individual characterisation to a head. I noticed this especially with Joanna reciting her elocution lines – which manage to be both empty and all too meaningful.

The closing scene of murder and violence amidst the WW2 victory celebrations underlines themes of darkness beneath events and distance from authority that have run through the book.

I love that the final paragraph manages simultaneously to link back to the start of the novel, push forward into the future, *and* leave the present both open and closed off.

Book details

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark, Penguin Books (2013 edn), 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Round-up: Aussie crime and famous teeth

I’m trying out different ways of writing about books, because I was getting a bit tired of the cycle of read, review, read, review. I’d like my blogging to be more responsive to how I read: to group things together, zoom in and out, make connections, and so on. This is one post format that I’m going to try out: a round-up of shorter comments on a few books that I’ve read. We start this round-up with a couple of Australian crime novels…

Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident explores the aftermath of a young woman’s murder in a small Australian town through the eyes of two characters: the victim’s older sister, and a journalist sent to cover the story. Where you might normally expect a mystery to give a sense of progressing towards a solution, there’s a void at the centre of Maguire’s mystery, which fills up withmore and more uncertainty. It’s engrossing stuff, with a strong narrative voice.

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic is the sequel to Resurrection Bay, once again featuring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic. This novel begins with a young woman dying in front of Caleb moments after she has sought him out, and sees the protagonist follow her trail to his home town. He becomes caught up in the local drug trade as he tries to find out who the woman was and why she wanted to find him. Like its predecessor, And Fire Came Down is briskly told with plenty of intrigue in plot and character.

From Australia to Mexico: The Story of My Teeth (tr. Christina MacSweeney) is the first book I’ve read by Valeria Luiselli. It’s narrated by one Gustavo Sánchez, an auctioneer who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, then auctions off the old ones by making out that they belonged to famous people. Then it gets stranger… I found this book great fun to read: tricksy and playful, with a serious exploration of how the meaning of an object (such as a tooth) shifts when you change the context. After this, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Luiselli’s work.

Book details

An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire, Lightning Books, 320 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

And Fire Came Down (2017) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 344 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Story of My Teeth (2013) by Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2015), Granta Books, 196 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Ninja Book Box reading: Anna Vaught and Tony Peake

For a while now, I’ve been a reader for Ninja Book Box, a quarterly subscription box and monthly book club focused on small press titles. Today, I thought I’d post reviews of a couple of the books I’ve read for them recently.

Anna Vaught, Killing Hapless Ally

This (semi-autobiographical) debut novel is a vivid portrait of an individual living with mental health problems. Our protagonist is Alison, who intends to do away with Hapless Ally, an alter ego she devised in childhood to be a more acceptable face to show the world – an alter ego that has overshadowed her life ever since.

Killing Hapless Ally is a compelling tour of Alison’s life. We’re immersed in her fraught childhood (her mother would tell Alison that she should have left her to die as a baby, for instance), and discover some of the ways she found to deal with the scars it left throughout her life (for example, Alison has a veritable company of famous imaginary friends, including Shirley Bassey, Albert Camus, and Frida from ABBA).

Though most of the novel is written in third person, we’re firmly viewing things from Alison’s viewpoint. For example, most characters are referred to by nicknames or pseudonyms (Alison’s mother is Santa Maria, a psychiatrist is referred to as Dr Mirror-Neuron, and so on), and the narrative is organised thematically as much as chronologically, whatever suits Alison. These techniques help reshape the novel’s world, bringing us that bit closer to Alison. This is not necessarily a comfortable place to be, but it is thoroughly engaging, sometimes darkly amusing, and ultimately uplifting. Killing Hapless Ally is warmly recommended.

Killing Hapless Ally (2016) by Anna Vaught, Patrician Press, 276 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Killing Hapless Ally is the choice for this month’s Ninja Book Club.

Tony Peake, North Facing

In 1962, Paul Harvey is at boarding school in Pretoria, South Africa. His English parentage marks him as an outsider, but he’s keen to join the most exclusive club in school: the friendship circle of one Andre du Toit. At first, du Toit appears nothing but a bully, but then he starts to be more friendly towards Paul – and soon Paul finds himself part of du Toit’s group.

Du Toit is known to set the members of his club tasks in order for them to keep their place. Paul’s secret mission is to keep an eye out for anything unusual at the meetings of Mr Spier’s after-school General Knowledge club, write a report for du Toit, and steal whatever he notices. All is not as it seems, however, and the ramifications of Paul’s task can still be felt fifty years later, when he returns to South Africa to face the past.

North Facing is an interesting character study that takes in large events and issues (such as apartheid and the Cuban Missile Crisis) but explores them from a small, personal viewpoint. The key turning points of the plot emerge only gradually, which is a very effective touch. The present-day strand feels a little underplayed, as it turns out to be more of a frame than an equal plot thread. But overall, this quiet-seeming novel is well worth a read.

North Facing (2017) by Tony Peake, Myriad Editions, 176 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Fish Soup – Margarita García Robayo

Here’s one last book for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months and Women in Translation Month. It’s the English-language debut of Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo: a compendium of short fiction translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based Charco Press, who specialise in Latin American literature. It’s a wonderfully sardonic set of stories.

Fish Soup is bookended by two novellas. In the first, Waiting for a Hurricane, a young woman longs to leave her home by the sea for… well, something more (“you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead,” she reflects). The narrator embarks on a series of relationships which she hopes will facilitate an escape (for example, she takes a job as an air hostess, then becomes involved with the Captain), but doesn’t appreciate what impact all this is having on her family, her lovers, and herself.

The closing Sexual Education is previously unpublished. It’s narrated by a student at a Catholic school who is part of a group taking a new abstinence class in place of standard sex education. However, what she’s being taught in class is rather different from what’s going on among her social group. For example, one girl is being persuaded by an older boy that a certain sexual position is not sinful, but actually allowed by the catechism. The narrator isn’t fooled:

The darkest mysteries – the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Grail – all became much clearer after being doctored by some con man who wanted something in return: a bag of coins, divine grace, Karina’s ass. It was all the same.

As so often in García Robayo’s stories, this bitter humour sits alongside something much darker. If Waiting for the Hurricane is the story of someone who refuses to see what she’s doing to herself and the world around her, the protagonist of Sexual Education is forced to question herself deeply.

Between the two novellas in Fish Soup is a collection of seven short stories with the overall title Worse Things. These pieces frequently feature protagonists who are distanced from life in some way; the stories then often lead to a point of change (or at least reflection). So, for example, in ‘You Are Here’, news of an accident at the airport and an awkward conversation with a young woman at his hotel give a businessman cause to face up to the emptiness in his life. In ‘Better Than Me’, an academic tries to persuade his estranged daughter to let him visit her; it’s a case of closely examining his life to find what might enable him to speak to her. In ‘Like a Pariah’, a woman with cancer has retreated to an old country house to convalesce, but her relationships with others may prove as difficult to handle (if not more so) than any illness.

There’s a lot to like in Fish Soup, and a distinctive voice to explore. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

Book details

Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe (2018), Charco Press, 212 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Last Children of Tokyo – Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer living in Germany, who writes in both German and (as is the case with this book) Japanese. The Last Children of Tokyo is set some time after a catastrophe has ruined at least part of the world. Japan has isolated itself, with even foreign words largely banned. Children are weak and sickly, while the old may yet live on and on: someone in their seventies is merely ‘young-elderly’. Yoshiro is a hundred years old, but there is no sense that he may be reaching the end of his road:

The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body? Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bothers to straighten?

(translation by Margaret Mitsutani)

Yoshiro’s main concern in life is to care for his great-grandson Mumei, a boy who loves his Illustrated Guide to Animals, even though he’ll never see many of the creatures depicted in it (that’s if they’re still around). Though Yoshiro would like to look after Mumei’s health, the information on child health changes so fast these days that he feels it’s hardly worth keeping up: “Unable to foresee what sort of fate awaited Mumei in the future, Yoshiro kept his eyes open, taking each day as it came, hoping the present wouldn’t crumble under his feet.” The Last Children of Tokyo is in large part a portrait of Yoshiro skating along on the surface of that fragile present (not just with Mumei, but also with the two generations of his family between).

The world of Tawada’s novel is strange and striking: giant mutant dandelions grow rampant, and certain words have been replaced with more palatable expressions (orphans, for example, are now referred to as “independent children”). This world exists at a point where the reader’s ability to rationalise what may have happened between now and then is balanced finely against the characters’ fading knowledge. It leaves the reader in the same precarious position as Yoshiro: we can’t envision the edges of Tawada’s world, and therefore can’t be certain of where its story will lead. Things are indeed grim, but there may be hope… if you know where to look.

Book details

The Last Children of Tokyo (2014) by Yoko Tawada, tr. Margaret Mitsutani (2017), Portobello Books, 140 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The US edition of this book is titled The Emissary and published by New Directions.

El Hacho – Luis Carrasco

Today’s book is a debut in two senses: the first novel by Gloucestershire-based writer Luis Carrasco, and the first title from publisher Époque Press. For both of them, it’s a fine start.

El Hacho – “the beacon” – is the Andalusian mountain on whose slopes Curro has spent his life farming olives. But times are tough: a prolonged drought threatens to ruin the current crop. Curro’s brother Jose-Marie is in favour of selling off El Hacho for its stone to be quarried – but he’s never been involved in the family farm, doesn’t understand the soul of the place. As Curro says to his brother:

You might say I lack ambition but that land is an extension of my own body. I could no more leave it than tear the tongue from my mouth. When I work it I stir the memory of our people into the fragile dust and every drop of sweat, every callous on my hand and groan in my joints is theirs as well as mine. To abandon it would be to abandon myself and that I cannot do.

El Hacho, then, is in part a tale of tradition versus modernity, but it does not come across as sentimental. Carrasco is clear on what the personal costs to Curro of selling the mountain would be, but also on the price he pays for staying. The story of El Hacho’s drought also becomes the personal story of Curro’s wish for life to go on as it has.

There is a certain timeless quality to El Hacho: it’s not completely out of time, but there’s not much to place it in a specific period. The story reads pretty much as though it could take place at any point over (say) the last sixty years. So, as well as being the tale of one particular farmer, El Hacho feels emblematic of a story that could play out over and over again, in many different times or places.

Book details

El Hacho (2018) by Luis Carrasco, Époque Press, 116 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Lady Killer – Masako Togawa

Next up for Women in Translation Month, some classic Japanese crime fiction. Masako Togawa (1931-2016) sounds a fascinating character: according to this article on the publisher’s website, she was a singer, actress, nightclub owner, LGBT icon – and, of course, a writer. The Lady Killer, published in 1963, was Togawa’s second novel, recently republished by Pushkin Vertigo.

By day, Ichiro Honda works as a computer specialist in Tokyo. At weekends, he visits his wife in Osaka. However, on weekday evenings, he lives a secret life seducing women in Tokyo’s bars and clubs. He keeps a record of his exploits in a notebook he calls “The Huntsman’s Log”, and uses “shot her dead” as a chilling euphemism:

To him, women were no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair. The man pulls the trigger, the woman falls, but after all they are made of tinplate and will rise again. So he could go on shooting to his heart’s content.

Until such time as the target turned out not to be tin and blood would be shed…

(translation by Simon Grove)

Ichiro thinks he’s untouchable, but then things start to go wrong. One after another, three of his victims are found dead, apparently murdered, and the evidence points to him. But the reader knows something that Ichiro doesn’t: a year ago, another of his victims killed herself, and her sister has been asking questions about him. It seems that she is out to frame him.

The Lady Killer is interestingly structured: the first half deals with Ichiro and the circumstances leading to his arrest; the second half focuses on the lawyers representing him in his appeal against the conviction. So we get a 360° view of the whole affair: the unfolding of the trap, and then the attempt to take it apart. Best of all is that, even when you think you know just where the book is headed… you don’t.

There’s a wonderful atmosphere to The Lady Killer, which comes less from particular descriptions than the suppleness with which Togawa moves her novel through its world. There is a sense of living, breathing places beyond the immediate action. And the tension in reading The Lady Killer is increased by the ambiguous nature of Ichiro Honda: he has been wronged, but he’s also a predator, so it’s up to individual readers to decide whether they wish him to be exonerated. Either way, Togawa’s book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Elsewhere

An insightful review of The Lady Killer by James Kidd in the South China Morning Post Magazine.

Book details

The Lady Killer (1963) by Masako Togawa, tr. Simon Grove (1985), Pushkin Vertigo, 222 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

I Didn’t Talk – Beatriz Bracher

“Stories are the shape we give things to pass the time on the bus, in line at the bank, at the bakery counter,” says Gustavo, the protagonist of I Didn’t Talk (the first novel by Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher to appear in English translation, and the latest selection from the Asymptote Book Club). Gustavo would like to tell his story, if it could exist as a thought without word, without shape. He is a professor of education, sorting through his papers as he prepares to retire. In 1970, he was arrested and tortured under the military dictatorship, along with his brother-in-law Armando, who was killed. Gustavo is adamant that he did not give Armando up: he didn’t talk.

But he’s talking now. He has been introduced to a young woman, Cecília, who is writing a novel set at the time of the dictatorship, and would like to interview him as part of her research. Gustavo reflects on the nature of that research:

After these interviews she’ll know more about the period than the people who lived through it. But, as under torture, they each will her only what doesn’t threaten, what doesn’t weigh on their present. And so, perhaps it’s not possible to have a collective return to what happened, only an individual one.

(translation by Adam Morris)

So, any story that Cecília tells about that time will necessarily be a composite put together from fragments. There are also other kinds of shifting, partial stories surrounding Gustavo, such as the unpublished autobiographical novel by his brother José, which deviates from his own recollections. Furthermore, Gustavo’s story as he tells it is itself a composite, switching back and forth (seemingly as whim takes him) between personal memories, accounts of the present, and commentary on language and education.

By novel’s end, Gustavo has told a story of himself, shapeless as it might seem to him. In the process, he examines what it is to have lived through his experiences, and confronts the implications of seeking not to rock the boat in life subsequently. It feels a little glib to end on a pun and say that I Didn’t Talk speaks eloquently, but… that’s what the book does. This is a strong English-language debut from Bracher; I hope there is more to come.

Book details

I Didn’t Talk (2004) by Beatriz Bracher, tr. Adam Morris (2018), New Directions, 149 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The White Book – Han Kang

August is Women in Translation Month (established by Meytal from Biblibio), and I have a few books lined up to read (some of which will also fit into Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months). We’ll see what I can get through, anyway. I thought I would start with a book that I didn’t manage to review during this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadowing.

Han Kang has swiftly become one of my favourite writers (she topped my “books of the year” list two years running, after all). The White Book is a little different from The Vegetarian and Human Acts, more abstract. It’s structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from swaddling bands to salt, frost to light and paper. There are images of a white city, destroyed during the Second World War and then rebuilt (though not named, this city is Warsaw, where Han spent time on a writer’s residency).

There is also a certain figure haunting this novel: Han’s narrator (a version of the author herself) describes how her mother’s first child, a girl, died only a couple of hours after being born:

Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling-up of the lungs. Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun.

(translation by Deborah Smith)

The narrator begins to think of this dead sister as she walks the white city. She imagines a life for her, which is what fills the longest section of the book:

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When the pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.

Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent – which sometimes, as here, bubbles to the surface – focused on the question of what it means for the narrator to have brought this “she” into (imagined) being. The implications of this are powerful.

As I always find with Han Kang’s writing (with Deborah Smith’s translation, too), there are moments when The White Book just slips straight in and cuts like glass. This, perhaps above all, is why I read fiction: that deep reaction to writing, which electrifies the nerve endings and makes living more intense.

Book details

The White Book (2016) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2017), Portobello Books, 162 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

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