Author: David Hebblethwaite

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan (tr. Chi-Young Kim)

The thought that kept returning to me as I read this book was: I don’t really know what I’m reading here, but I know I like it. Reading a few other reviews of Whale online has helped me to see it as a dance through recent Korean history, examining military dictatorship and the rise of capitalism through the stories of a few individuals. 

I say ‘stories’ deliberately, because there’s a certain fairytale atmosphere to Cheon Myeong-kwan’s novel, with its hazy passage of time and the just-so tone of its narration (really well evoked in Chi-Young Kim’s translation). 

The principal character is Geumbok, a woman from the mountains whose fortunes rise, fall, and rise again, until eventually she builds her own movie theatre in the shape of a whale. Geumbok’s story is intertwined with that of her daughter Chunhui, large and immensely strong, a brilliant brickmaker, unable to speak – except with an elephant whom she befriends. 

There is great trauma and violence in Whale, but also moments of humour and touches of magic. This book is a kaleidoscope of interlocking stories, all painted larger than life. 

Published by Europa Editions UK.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2023: the longlist

The longlist for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses was released today:

The publisher links above go to the publishers’ specific pages on each book.

I’ve taken a look at the time I realistically have, and decided that I’m not going to read along with the Prize this year – all ten is just too much for me. But I will see what piques my interest, and hopefully manage to read a few in the weeks ahead. Congratulations to all the nominees!

History, memory, complicity: German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (tr. Julian Evans)

Is it really so long since I read Brodeck’s Report? I haven’t read Philippe Claudel nearly enough. His latest book in English translation is a cycle of five stories set in 20th century German, exploring themes of history, memory and complicity.

The opening ‘Ein Mann’ sets the tone. It sees a German soldier abandoning his post. We don’t know his name, and the landscape through which he travels is also largely anonymous. He’s been an unthinking cog in the machinery of the Nazi regime: “Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?”

Now that he sees what he has participated in, he wants to get away – he’s not really thinking about where, as long as it’s somewhere else. The ending of the story suggests, however, that he can’t outrun the past.

Recurring throughout the book is the name of Viktor, who may or may not be the same character each time, but always seems to have been an active participant in atrocity. In ‘Ein Mann,’ he’s in charge of the soldier’s concentration camp. In ‘Irma Grese’, though, he’s an old man in a care home in the 1990s, albeit with a past in the regime. 

Irma herself is a girl who’s been given a job in the care home, part of which is specifically to look after Viktor, who happens to be the mayor’s father. Irma resents the job, and resents the pitiful Viktor. She takes out her frustrations on him by eating his food and mistreating him other ways. In an inversion of ‘Ein Mann’, the Viktor of ‘Irma Grese’ is victim rather than oppressor now. But, as Irma will find, there are no real winners in these stories, not in the face of the cruelty that flows through the book.

Elsewhere, Claudel explores the fallibility of memory. In ‘Sex und Linden’, an 90-year-old man looks back on his adolescence, and a time when he was seduced by a beautiful woman who kept whispering another man’s name (‘Viktor’, as it happens). It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and along with the man’s happy memory is a sense that the golden past can’t be recaptured, if it was there in the first place. 

‘Die Kleine’ is the story of a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from a concentration camp, and taken to start a new life in a new household. She pictures the elements of her old life wrapped up in a handkerchief, but this memory is precarious. First, she recalls the old elements in a different way each time. Later, they start to lose their vibrancy:

The handkerchief, folded and tidied away in her brain, held many things but they were things that no longer moved, the way that clothes that have lost the bodies that used to inhabit them still keep a trace of their shape and their smells, but not much. Everything the little girl kept in the handkerchief reminded her of what had happened before, and over there. But over there was gone. There was only here. 

The story which I found to lay down the greatest challenge to the reader was ‘Gnadentod’  – not in the sense of ‘difficulty’ but in its degree of confrontation. In this story, Claudel imagines a version of history in which the German artist Franz Marc did not die in 1916 at Verdun, but was instead placed in an asylum and subjected to a ‘mercy killing’ (to translate the story’s title) by the Nazis in 1940 due to his mental health. 

Then again, maybe that’s just the official line. In one startling sequence, Claudel has Marc’s real-life biographer defending his scholarship in the face of the story’s prevailing fiction. This is a stark experience because we’re seeing fake history being created before our eyes and paraded as the truth.

In various ways throughout German Fantasia, Claudel illustrates how history and memory can be distorted (deliberately or otherwise). He also suggests that his characters are caught in the shadow of German history, no matter where or when they are. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Appius and Virginia by Gertrude Trevelyan

A Happy New Year to you! I’m starting 2023 on the blog with an obscure classic that took me by surprise…

Gertrude Trevelyan published eight novels before she died tragically young in 1941, from injuries incurred when her home was bombed in the Blitz. She fell into obscurity, but a few years ago her work was rediscovered by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page. This led eventually to her debut novel, 1932’s Appius and Virginia, being reissued. It’s the story of a woman who raises an orang-utan as a human child, and from that description, I was expecting to be rather whimsical. It really isn’t. 

Virginia Hutton is on her own aged 40 and frustrated with life. She decides to conduct an experiment to see if an ape can be nurtured into humanity. This is her chance to leave a mark:

All her will power, all her suggestive force, her whole reserve of nervous and mental energy, was not too much to expend on this experiment. For If it succeeded she would indeed have achieved something. She would have created a human being out of purely animal material, have forced evolution to cover in a few years stages which unaided it would have taken aeons to pass…

Virginia buys a young orang-utan, names him Appius, and retreats from London to the countryside to set about her task. It isn’t easy, because Appius experiences the world on a much more abstract level than Virginia, and often he doesn’t understand what she’s trying to tell him, or why she does what she does. But eventually, Appius gains skills such as rudimentary speech and the ability to read, and Virginia feels she’s making progress. Oh, what a future she imagines for Appius – and herself:

She saw him, in Eton suit and shining collar, bowing over an armful of gilt and crimson tomes while the oak-panelled hall resounded with discrete, kid-gloved applause. She saw herself in the front row, surrounded by secretly envious parents and gratified masters, clapping shyly, blushing a little at this honour paid to her big boy, doing him credit by her clothes, her sleight figure, her youthful but not too girlish appearance.

Key to Virginia’s approach, though, is keeping Appius unaware of his true animal nature. There are times when this breaks through despite her best efforts, and the whole reading experience becomes something much rawer, elemental. The unbridgeable gap between Appius and Virginia becomes more apparent as the novel reaches a higher pitch – until the ending, which gives me chills just thinking back on it.

My favourite books read in 2022

If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.

Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:

12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)

My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read. 

11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’
Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)

A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say. 

10. The Sky Above the Roof (2019) by Nathacha Appanah
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan (2022)

This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work. 

9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf
Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)

These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me. 

8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)

This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant. 

7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin
Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)

Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing. 

6. Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks

Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page. 

5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)

I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result. 

4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre
Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)

Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose. 

3. Turtle Diary (1975) by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before. 

2. Appliance (2022) by J.O. Morgan

I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection. 

nor

1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung
Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)

At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.

***

That’s my round-up of 2022 – I hope you had a good reading year. Here are my selections from previous years: 2021, 202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

With that, I will leave you until 2023. In the meantime, you can also find me on TwitterInstagram, Facebook and Mastodon – and I’ll see you back here next year.

Héloïse Press: The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (tr. Katherine Gregor)

The Memory of the Air is a slim volume that confronts an assault, at first obliquely and later directly. Caroline Lamarche’s narrator begins dreaming of a dead woman in a ravine, and resolves to visit her regularly. It seems pretty clear that this is an internal journey for the narrator:

Every morning, I think that everything is going to be all right. Or, on the contrary, that everything is going to go wrong. Either way, I have to go for it: put one foot in front of the other. Depending on the day, the descent into the ravine can be more or less easy.

As the monologue flows back and forth between the narrator’s life and that ravine, we get a sense of her reality growing unstable. She tells us about her relationship with a man she refers to only as” the man before” or “Manfore”. Over time, we see how toxic – indeed, abusive – that relationship was. A remark from Manfore then takes the narrator back further, to finally face what happened to her in the past. 

Katherine Gregor’s translation takes you right into the narrator’s perspective. Reading The Memory of the Air is an intense, harrowing experience. 

Published by Héloïse Press.

Salt Publishing: The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware

The Peckham Experiment was a project begun in 1926, aimed at encouraging working-class families to better themselves through access to leisure and cultural activities. Guy Ware imagines twins born into this project: Charlie and JJ. As the novel begins, we meet Charlie aged 85, looking back on his life to write a eulogy for JJ.

The brothers’ parents were communist, and JJ and Charlie carried into adulthood ideals of improving life for everyone. JJ was a council architect, looking to design better housing for working-class people. Charlie was a surveyor, building those homes. As time went on, they would find their ideals compromised, and placed in the shadow of structural failure and disaster.

Charlie’s narrative voice is dense and discursive, his recollections haphazard at times, but still sharp. It’s a voice that can weave together the personal, political and historical. As a result, the twins’ experiences reflect undercurrents that play out across broader society in the novel. It’s fascinating to read.

Published by Salt.

Peirene Press: Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić (tr. Celia Hawkesworth)

The latest Peirene title is translated from Bosnian, but its title nods to Japan. Kintsugi refers to the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with gold, so that the broken edges are highlighted rather than hidden. Senka Marić’s protagonist discovers a lump at the start of this novel, which leads to a diagnosis of breast cancer. The rest of the book chronicles her changing relationship to her body as she undergoes treatment. 

Be warned, the protagonist’s experience is vividly – at times brutally – described; but that’s also what gives the book is power. Marić depicts the protagonist struggling to come to terms with what’s happening to her, but also a gradual sense that these changes are becoming part of her, like the cracks in a work of kintsugi. 

The novel is also structured in a way that reflects the idea of kintsugi: short chapters, not just from the present but also the protagonist’s childhood. In other words: pieces of her life, the joins visible, that are put together into this striking work. 

Corylus Books: Deceit by Jónína Leósdóttir (tr. Quentin Bates)

Today I’m welcoming Corylus Books back to the blog, with a stop on their blog tour for Deceit, the first novel by Icelandic author Jónína Leósdóttir to appear in English translation. 

Expat English psychologist Adam receives a call from his ex, police detective Soffia, asking to speak to him urgently. Adam is not happy about this, as he’s worried about catching Covid, but there’s no one else available for Soffia to turn to. She explains that the fresh fruit in a café has been found to be contaminated with needles. Other incidents of contamination emerge, and it turns out there’s a web of family ties connecting the targets. 

Deceit is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning and just keeps on going. I was especially intrigued by the setup, which grows only more complex as the pages turn. Adam and Soffia are a pair of contrasting and engaging characters that really help to give this mystery a distinctive feel. It was a pleasure to spend time in their world. 

3TimesRebel Press: Mothers Don’t by Katixa Agirre (tr. Kristin Addis)

This is one of the first titles from 3TimesRebel, a small press based in Dundee, who specialise in books by female authors, translated from minority languages (Mothers Don’t is translated from Basque). It’s a compelling book, and quite a statement of intent for the publisher. 

The book begins with one Alice Espanet being found at home with her twins, whom she has apparently killed. Two weeks later, Agirre’s narrator is in the middle of giving birth when she realises that she knew Alice for a time at university, though in those days Alice was named Jade. The narrator comes to find that motherhood is taking over her sense of self. Having found some success as a writer of true crime, she decides the way to get back to herself is to write about Alice Espanet. 

Agirre’s protagonist tries to understand what drove Alice to kill her children. She visits the Espanet house, goes back to an old friend who also knew Jade, attends Alice’s trial… but the answers remain elusive and ambiguous. At the same time, the narrator is questioning her own feelings about motherhood: sometimes it feels beautiful and fulfilling to her; sometimes it pushes aside everything else. 

It seems to me that Mothers Don’t is an example of what Javier Cercas terms a ‘blind-spot novel‘ – a novel searching to answer a question that ultimately can’t be answered, so that the search itself becomes an answer. The narrator’s feelings about being a mother, the competing stories trying to explain Alice Espanet’s actions… These things are not reconciled, but the contradictions in them animate the novel and help give it its power. 

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