CategoryFrench

Naked Eye Publishing: The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing by Darina Al Joundi

Time for something a little different today: a dramatic monologue. Darina Al Joundi is a Lebanese writer and actor now living in France. She first performed this one-woman play in 2007. She co-wrote a novel based on the play which has previously been translated into English, but this is the first English translation of the play itself. The translator is Helen Vassallo, who runs the excellent blog Translating Women (she’s written a post here on how she came to translate the play. 

Al Joundi’s protagonist is Noun, whose father was a secular freedom fighter in a strict Muslim family. She interrupts his funeral, locking herself in the room with his body. She is there to carry out his wish to have Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ played at his funeral, rather than recitations from the Qu’ran. The monologue is Noun’s reflection on her life in Beirut, and on her father’s influence. 

Noun’s father encouraged her to live as she wanted, and didn’t judge her. In turn, she looked up to him. For example, as a girl Noun tells her father that she wants to wear a bra. He warns her that she’ll find it painful and constricting, but she insists and he goes along with her wishes. Noun soon discovers that he was right.

There is humour running through Noun’s story, but she also experiences great violence – both personally and as part of the war escalating around her. In time, she has cause to question whether her father appreciated how free his daughter might really be in a society that didn’t share his values. Noun comes across as a vivid, complex character in this thought-provoking piece of work. 

Published by Naked Eye Publishing.

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland

Originally published in French in 1977, this is a travelogue by Togolese writer Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated by James Kirkup). As a teenager in the 1950s, he is (reluctantly) about to be initiated into a snake cult when he reads a book about Greenland. This place is beyond anything he has experienced or can imagine, but there will be no snakes – and, he reads, “the child is king, free from all traditional and family restraint”. This is enough to make the young Kpomassie resolve to travel to Greenland, even though it means running away from home.

Kpomassie’s journey to Greenland is an epic tale in itself. It takes six years for him to earn enough money to leave Africa, followed by a spell working in Paris before he finally reaches his destination. He stands out, not just for his skin colour but also his height (hence he’s nicknamed Michel the Giant). This will be a two-way meeting of cultures: “I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered.”

Kpomassie’s book is a fascinating account of his travels. There are telling details, such as the cinema that stops foreign films every ten minutes to explain the action to the Inuit audience, because only Danish subtitles are available. These episodes are mixed with Kpomassie’s broader reflections on the people he encounters. His openness and willingness to meet Greenland on its own terms are what make Michel the Giant so engaging for me.

Published by Penguin Modern Classics.

MacLehose Press: The Sky Above the Roof by Nathacha Appanah (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)

I’m intrigued by the way that the brevity of a short novel can bring a distinctive feel to familiar subject matter. One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel springs to mind here, the way it puts a toxic family relationship into extreme close-up by removing all but the most essential detail. 

Another example is The Sky Above the Roof, the latest novel to appear in English by Mauritian-French author Nathacha Appanah. It revolves around three characters who are all, in some way, ill at ease in the world. We begin with young Wolf in the back of a police van. He drove on the wrong side of the road, there was a crash, and now here we are. To an outside observer, Wolf may just seem a boy who doesn’t pay attention. In fact, though his mind mixes up times and memories of events, his mechanical instinct is something else. His mother thinks of him like this:

…a boy who does not have a licence and cannot catch a bus on his own, suffers from anxiety attacks and can go for days without speaking. One who has magic fingers and can repair little things when they break down (hairdryer, telephone, power drill), his gaze acting like a scanner and detecting where the fault lies. He who can run round and round the house for two hours without stopping, is afraid of the hollow in the garden and, now, does not want to see her.

At the time of the crash, Wolf was driving to visit his sister Paloma, who walked out years ago. Paloma is someone who hides on the sidelines of life. Then there’s the siblings’ mother, who was named Eliette as a girl, and hated the way her parents made her dress up and sing – which is to say nothing of where that led. She made a life for herself as an adult, changing her appearance and calling herself Phoenix. She also made sure that she wouldn’t constrict her children in the way her parents did with her – but, as we see, not everything turns out as intended. 

The Sky Above the Roof has 130 pages and encompasses this family’s immediate history, as well as Wolf’s brief (though still harrowing) stay in the remand centre. It seems to me that the novel loses some nuance of cause and effect through its brevity: sometimes it feels as though upbringing is the be-all and end-all. But its shortness also brings Appanah’s book intensity, making it a string of set-pieces with that swirling prose in Geoffrey Strachan’s fine translation. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

My favourite books read in 2021

Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:

12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014)
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)

A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling. 

11. Judith Bryan, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998)

If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting. 

10. Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (2021)

I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well. 

9. Andrew Komarnyckyj, Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (2021)

Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile. 

8. Rebecca Watson, little scratch (2021)

little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book. 

7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009)
Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)

This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful. 

6. Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike. 

5. Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (2021)

A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back. 

4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016)
Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)

I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.

3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007)
Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.

2. Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (2021)

I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel. 

1. Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians (2021)

The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.

***

There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 20192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker 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.

Pushkin Press: At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018)
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2020)

This is a short and powerful novel of World War One by French-Senegalese writer David Diop. Our narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, came from Senegal and joined the French army with his friend (his “more-than-brother”) Mademba Diop. As the novel begins, Mademba is dead – Alfa found him mortally wounded, but couldn’t bring himself to do what his friend pleaded and finish him off. Now Alfa regrets that, and it has driven him to seek bloodthirsty revenge against the German forces.

The scenes set in Alfa’s childhood provide a contrast to the chaos and brutality of war, and it seems clear that the conflict is what has made him like this. Alfa’s commanding officers are happy to let him carry on at first, because his behaviour plays into their stereotypical views of African soldiers. But eventually he is sent to a field hospital for treatment, though even then the outcome is far from certain.

The language of Diop’s novel (a fine translation by Anna Moschovakis) is built around loops and repeated phrases that bring us closer to Alfa’s viewpoint, almost stiflingly so. This leads to some intense shifts of perception. We see with painful clarity what Alfa has done, and what has been done to him.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits

Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.

Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)

In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing. ⁣

A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently. ⁣

The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book. ⁣

Published by Gallic Books.

Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)

For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.⁣⁣

In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection. ⁣⁣

The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different. ⁣⁣

Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about. ⁣⁣

Published by Tilted Axis Press.

Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)

In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community. ⁣

Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police. ⁣

So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way. ⁣

Published by MacLehose Press.

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