CategoryCroatian

Three reviews: Williams. Perišić, Makholwa

It’s time for another three reviews from my Instagram.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)

I’ve heard a lot of praise for Eley Williams’ story collection Attrib. over the last couple of years, but haven’t got around to reading it. So I had high hopes for her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, but didn’t quite know what to expect. ⁣

What I found is a joyous celebration of language. Here, for example, is one character trying to identify a bird:⁣

He pored over zoological catalogues and pawed through illustrated guides but for all he was able to glean about various small birds’ feeding habits, migratory patterns, taxonomies, use of ants to clean their feathers, use and misuse in mythology and folklore, prominence on menus and milliners’ manifests, &c., &c., its species remained a mystery. Basically, it was a sparrow with access to theatrical costumiers.

The music of Williams’ writing is all its own. If you’re interested in words and wordplay, I would recommend The Liar’s Dictionary on its prose style alone. ⁣

But there’s more than that. The novel revolves around Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a grand yet incomplete work that has been in existence for over a hundred years. We follow two main characters: the first is Mallory, an intern in the present day, when it’s just her and old David Swansby left, and there are plans to digitise and update the existing entries. The second protagonist is Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer who works at the dictionary in its Victorian heyday, and often finds himself overlooked. ⁣

The two characters are (unknowingly) brought together by mountweazels: false dictionary entries such as “skipsty (v.) The act of taking steps two at a time”. Peter inserts them in the dictionary for his own amusement, and Mallory is tasked with weeding them out. For both characters, working with mountweazels creates an outside space that gives them a greater sense of belonging. For Peter, it’s a chance to leave his mark on the dictionary when others tend to ignore him. Mallory gains the confidence to come out to the rest of the world and not just to her girlfriend. Williams explores how words can shape and reshape ourselves. ⁣

Published by William Heinemann.

Robert Perišić, No-Signal Area (2015)
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2020

This is the first title in a new line of translated fiction published in the UK by the US publisher Seven Stories Press. It begins with cousins Oleg and Nikola arriving in the remote town of N., somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. They’ve come to revive an old factory that manufactures an obsolete model of turbine, so they can sell a couple to an overseas buyer. ⁣

The pair recruit Sobotka, the chief engineer from the factory, to work with them. Gradually the old workers return, and Oleg and Nikola (who aren’t all that business-minded) leave them to manage themselves. The factory becomes poised between the past and the future, socialism and capitalism. As the novel’s title suggests, this place is something of a world apart, where outside influences reach only haphazardly. ⁣

As No-Signal Area progresses, it spirals out into telling the histories of Oleg, Nikola and the factory workers, turning into a complex tapestry of story. ⁣

Angela Makholwa, The Blessed Girl (2017)

Bontle is a twentysomething woman (don’t ask her what number the “something” is) with her own hair extension business. Thanks to the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (brought in to redress the effects of apartheid), she is now also trying her hand at running a construction business, though it’s not as straightforward as she thought. ⁣

Bontle might seem to have it all: looks, the trappings of wealth, a large social media following, her pick of suitors… She is indeed blessed. “Blessed” in this context (according to the novel’s epigraph) is a South African term that means Bontle’s lifestyle is sponsored by wealthy older men in return for a relationship. She has several “blessers” in her life, and it all gets rather complicated… ⁣

I heard about Angela Makholwa’s novel because it has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize, and it is indeed very funny. There’s also an undercurrent of sadness, the sense that Bontle is using her fancy lifestyle and breezy language as a form of displacement. This sense grows more and more pronounced as the book progresses and Bontle is forced to confront the past. It’s a really effective ending to an enjoyable book. ⁣

Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

Best European Fiction 2015: Rudan and Petrescu

BestEuroVedrana Rudan, ‘My Granddaughter’s Name Is Anita’
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

A woman lies in bed, unmoved by the attentions of her husband. He tries to pleasure her by stimulating different parts of her body, but none of it works; instead, the woman dreams about things she does enjoy – mostly shopping and clothes:

My head is in the closet. I am sniffing my blouses. I count them. Forty-three colorful babes watch me merrily. White, green, red, pink, pale green, the color of water, black. I even have one the color of dirt. A big, dull, dark-brown blouse. I don’t dare take it out of the closet because it is a gift from my husband. When he gave it to me, I thought, God, you know nothing about me. A dark-brown blouse. A mound of dirt by a freshly dug grave.

Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation is full of such choppy rhythms that evoke the narrator’s restlessness, but also her raw emotions – desire and repulsion. Her feelings about clothes may be genuine, or magnified by the dream state; either way, they’re a sign that she’s uncertain about her life and herself. She clings on to material things that aren’t actually real, but shies away from sensations that are.

The title of Vedrana Rudan’s story stands out because it’s a seemingly throwaway line that has nothing much to do with the main story. But it opens up an entirely new context in which to view the narrator: as a grandmother, someone with ties beyond the immediate sphere of her marriage (which is all we really see in Rudan’s tale). The story illustrates that even the simplest-seeming moments can reveal emotional complexity, and may show just one facet of a life among many.

Răzvan Petrescu, ‘G-text’
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Well, this must have been fun/interesting/challenging/frustrating to translate: a monologue full of long, rambling sentences, with plenty of G-sounds. For example:

[…]I hated the open air grills, and the claws of the griffon that fluttered above us on odd-numbered days, I hated the glaring lies, the gladioli, the unquestioned chacun à son gout that was always questioned, but not Simon and Garfunkel, and Gogol, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Sartre’s gagging in Nausea was crushingly minor compared with the apocalyptic work of my nausea.

It’s a fabulous piece of translation by Alistair Ian Blyth. The Gs wax and wane, but the voice of Răzvan Petrescu’s narrator is always there: angry at the past and Ceaucescu’s regime – the music that was banned, the trams that didn’t run, and much more besides – a voice that feels as though it has been waiting for a chance to speak, and seizes the moment with an unstoppable torrent of words

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