Category: Hebrew

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon: Women in Translation Month

When it comes to an event like Women in Translation Month, I usually pick out a few titles in advance that I want to read. But I also like to leave some room for serendipity, like this Israeli novel. I found it while searching through a box of books, had no memory of it… Then I read the blurb, and wanted to read it straight away. 

(I’ve since worked out that I got it through an old Asymptote Book Club subscription.)

It’s supposed to be the day of Marie’s and Matti’s wedding, but there’s a problem: Margie has locked herself in her room, and is repeating “Not getting married” over and over again. The novel focuses on the couple’s families and their attempts to get through to Margie. 

There’s a wry sense of humour throughout Matalon’s book, and the imagery is often striking. For example, this is from the first couple of pages:

And so they simply continued to stare at the shut door with its old-fashioned dark wood veneer, seemingly anticipating a thawing, a softening, miraculous melting–if not of the bride then at least of the door–and hoping for something further: a continuation of the sentence [i.e. “Not gettiing married”], an idea or a word that might emerge through the door like the wet head of a newborn closely followed by the body itself sliding out.

Translation from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I found that comparison to a newborn baby quite startling, and a little uncomfortable, to imagine in context. The novel’s characters are similarly caught off-guard: the only real clue Margie gives them to her state of mind is a section of Lea Goldberg’s poem ‘The Prodigal Son’, adapted to become ‘The Prodigal Daughter’.

And the Bride Closed the Door was Ronit Matalon’s last novel, winning the Brenner Prize the day before the author died in 2017. Reading around a bit, it seems clear that there are reflections on Israeli society in the novel that I wouldn’t have picked up on. Even without that, I found Matalon’s book an intriguing and entertaining character portrait.

Published by New Vessel Press.

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.

Man Booker International Prize 2017: and the winner is…

The other day, I wondered whether the official MBIP winner would match the shadow winner again. Now I know the answer to that question: well, no. 

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017 was…

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape). 

I quite liked the book, but it wasn’t one of my favourites; and it didn’t make our shadow shortlist at all. As Tony notes in his post on the winner, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you’ve invested several months in following this competition, and the result doesn’t go the way you wanted. 

Of course, there’s more than one point of view. A Horse Walks was by far the favourite longlisted title of readers from the Mookse and the Gripes Goodreads group who were also following the Prize. A lot of people rate this book very highly. We on the shadow panel weren’t among them. Ah well, so be it. 

My congratulations go to David Grossman, Jessica Cohen, and everyone else involved in the publication of A Horse Walks into a Bar. My thanks go to my fellow shadow panellists StuTony MaloneGrantBellezzaTony MessengerClare, and Lori. Thanks also to everyone who’s been reading along with our discussions. 

See you again next year? ?

A Horse Walks into a Bar: Man Booker International Prize 2017

David Grossman, A Horse Walks into a Bar (2014)

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (2016)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: this is the first book by David Grossman that I’ve read, but (yes, just like the last two titles reviewed here) it’s not going to be the last.

Dov Greenstein (alias Dovaleh G) takes to the stage in a comedy club. Watching in the audience is our narrator, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge who attended the same private remedial class as Greenstein when they were young. The comedian called Lazar out of the blue and asked him to attend tonight’s show, and to report back what he sees when he watches Greenstein.

It’s quite the performance, as Greenstein does his best to alienate his audience. He throws in a few jokes as a sop (or taunt) to them; but mostly he’s intent on laying bear details of his life, and one incident in particular.

A Horse Walks into a Bar explores moments of intense experience in the frame of a stand-up show, which is itself a heightened and intense situation. Grossman is then able to examine the relationship between teller and told-to (including novelist and reader), and how emotional events become processed and accepted (or not) in the telling. This is a dense rush of a novel.

Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?

Unlike some of the other titles on the longlist, A Horse Walks is strongly shaped around a particular conceit, which is the sort of thing I like in a novel, so I’m inclined to be sympathetic towards it. However, I do think that the novel achieves a good deal with its conceit; so my answer is yes, I could see it on the shortlist. 

Judas: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Amos Oz, Judas (2014)

Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (2016)

Jerusalem, 1959: newly single Shmuel Ash abandons his studies and answers an advert on a campus noticeboard. He becomes the companion of an irascible old invalid named Gershom Wald. His job is to spend each evening reading to and debating with Wald; the days are his own.

Shmuel also becomes infatuated with Atalia Abravanel, the fortysomething woman who shares Wald’s house. It transpires that she is his daughter-in-law, and that her father was a renegade Zionist who advocated peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Shmuel discusses with Wald his idea that Judas Iscariot was not a traitor, but a true believer in Jesus’s divinity. Over the course of the novel, parallels emerge between this figure of Judas and Atalia’s father – and, perhaps, Shmuel himself.

There’s a lot to like about Judas: the novel is very amusing in places, and the prose rhythmic; repetition of words and descriptions serves to suggest that Shmuel’s life is caught in a loop. But, to be honest, I found a lot of the discussions quite dry to read; I suspect that, had I known more about the religious and political context, I may have enjoyed the book more.

Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?

I don’t know whether Judas is going to make my own top six, but personal taste plays a strong part in this instance. I do appreciate a lot of what the novel is trying to do, and there is certainly enough to make it worthy of a spot on the shortlist. 

Bookmunch’d: Alejandro Zambra and Sayed Kashua

Two recent reviews from Bookmunch:

Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home (2011/3)

Chile, 1985: as the neighbourhood gathers to shelter from an earthquake, a nine-year-old boy strikes up a sort of friendship with Claudia, the twelve-year-old niece of his neighbour Raúl. Claudia asks the boy to keep an eye on her uncle, and so he does – soon discovering that Raúl has frequent rendezvous with a mysterious woman. But no sooner has the boy prepared to reveal all to Claudia than she relieves him of his duties, and moves away.

This narrative then breaks off, and we meet a (similarly nameless) writer in the present day, who is apparently writing the noel we have been reading. He’s struggling to find his place in life, beset by a nagging feeling that his parents wrote the novel of the world, leaving his generation as “secondary characters”. The doubts and tensions raised by this feeling work their way into the writer’s novel, and this project becomes his focus – if he can get the novel right, maybe life will follow. We then return to the ‘fiction’ as, twenty years on, the boy-turned-man meets Claudia once more, and learns the truth.

Alejandro Zambra’s third novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) thus sets up a parallel between its two storylines. The young boy’s inability to grasp the realities behind adult interactions is nicely handled (as in the scene where he sees his father and Raúl talking about what he assumes to be “solitude”, but is presumably “solidarity”), as is his older self’s reaction to learning what was really going on in his childhood. But the two sides of the novel don’t quite seem to gel: the writer storyline doesn’t reach as far into its themes, which unbalances the book as a whole.

Any Cop? It’s a mixed bag. One half of the novel is good, but the other doesn’t quite match up to it.

Sayed Kashua, Exposure (2010/2)

Exposure is the story (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg) of two unnamed Arab citizens of Israel, both living in Jerusalem. One is a successful lawyer, who has made his wealth working on behalf of resident Arabs who are not citizens; his status gives him an informal, but valuable authority:

Without [Israeli Arab professionals]who would represent the residents of east Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities…Many of the locals preferred to be represented by someone who was a citizen of the state of Israel… Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half-Jewish.

One day, on a whim, he buys a novel from the second-hand book store, and finds tucked inside it a love letter, unmistakably in his wife’s handwriting. The volume is inscribed “Yonatan”, and the lawyer becomes consumed with the question of who this unknown suitor might be.

Sayed Kashua’s second protagonist has been rather less lucky in life: he’s a social worker, whom we first meet as he’s burying the 28-year-old Yonatan. We discover that Yonatan had been in a coma, and the social worker had taken on the job of minding him at night – a thankless task, but also a relatively straightforward source of income that the social worker welcomed. Looking after Yonatan also gave him something else: the opportunity to assume the Jewish man’s identity when registering on a photography course.

Exposure works best as a study of identity, and how it may be used and abused. Both protagonists operate at the boundary between Arab and Jewish identities: the lawyer acts as an intermediary between the two; the social worker becomes able to cross from one to the other. The comatose Yonatan becomes an anonymous canvas on which both men can project an identity: the lawyer creates a target for his jealous hatred, while social worker reinvents himself.

Kashua’s novel is not quite so successful in terms of plot, though. There are a couple of coincidences too many for it to satisfy as a mystery; and when the two men’s stories finally converge, it doesn’t seem to add much. Whatever the destination, though, the journey is worth it.

Any Cop?: As a study of character and issues, certainly; as a mystery story, less so.

Books in brief: late February

Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (2012). Cahalan is a New York Post journalist who contracted a rare form of encephalitis which induced a period of mental illness. This book is her account of that time, reconstructed largely from secondary sources (Cahalan having been left with few memories of her illness). It’s an interesting story, ranging from the development of Cahalan’s symptoms, through her eventual diagnosis, to her trying to understand the illness as she recovers.

Anouk Markovits, I Am Forbidden  (2012). A novel chronicling fifty years in the lives of a Jewish family, beginning in a Hasidic community in Transylvania, and moving through Paris and England, and ending in New York. I appreciate its careful portrait of the pressures faced by its characters when their wishes clash with law and tradition; but I did find the book hard to engage with at times, and its latter stages felt overly compressed.

Bianca Zander, The Girl Below (2012). Suki returns to London after living in New Zealand for ten years, and finds herself out of place in even the most familiar surroundings. The job of minding an old friend’s teenage son gives Suki a chance to find her bearings once again – but she keeps having visions of her childhood, and an incident in an old air-raid shelter in the garden. That adds an intriguing and unexpected extra dimension to the story of Suki’s finding her place.

Hugh Aldersey-Wlliams, Anatomies (2013). I loved the idea of this book: a tour of the human body, taking in art and culture as well as science. It packs a lot in, from historical attempts to depict the body, to the physicality of dancing, to Shakespeare’s anatomical idioms. There is a lot of interesting material, but ultimately I think the book is that bit too diffuse: some chapters wander a little too far away from their named subject; some sections I just wish were longer. As a whole, Anatomies is okay, but it could do with more focus.


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