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What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

Resistance – Julián Fuks

Like its author, the narrator of Julián Fuks’ Resistance is Brazilian, of Argentinian descent. The narrator’s parents were opponents of Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, and had to flee. In the present, the protagonist travels to Buenos Aires, trying to piece together his family’s story. But so much is beyond his reach. For example, in one chapter he describes the evening his parents held a dinner party where no one came, because their friends knew how dangerous it would be to gather together. Fuks’ protagonist realises that he simply cannot grasp what it was like to live in those circumstances:

I can’t conceive of a suppression of the self being exploited to the maximum, the systematic destruction of the void that is the self, its transformation into an object of torture. I cannot imagine, and this is why my words become more abstract the unspeakable circumstances in which staying silent is not a betrayal, in which staying silent is a resistance, the most absolute evidence of commitment and friendship. Staying silent in order to save the other: stay silent and be destroyed.
(translation from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn)

Ideas of resistance run through the book: people resisting oppression, of course, but also history resisting comprehension, or reality resisting being captured in language. But the narrator does what he can, because he feels that he must – that he owes it to his family, and himself.

Book details

Resistance (2015) by Julián Fuks, tr. Daniel Hahn (2018), Charco Press, 154 pages, paperback.

Ten books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month

I don’t know quite where half the year has gone, but it’s July, which means it is Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (hosted this year by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog). I look forward to this month, because I invariably come across some great books. I thought I would start by taking a look back through my archives. Here are ten recommendations (six translated from Spanish, two from Portuguese, one from Basque, one from Catalan), with links to my reviews…

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Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (Basque Country), tr. Elizabeth Macklin – A novel about the history of its author’s fishing family, lives that grow larger in the telling.

I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher (Brazil), tr. Adam Morris – A retiring academic who survived torture by the military dictatorship in the 1970s reflects on the impossibility of telling a coherent story about the past.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (Brazil), tr. Alison Entrekin – A classic tale of childhood chronicling the adventures of a charming young protagonist, which carries a poignant sting at the end.

Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernández Cubas (Spain), tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts – Six eerie stories of unstable reality.

No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Argentina), tr. Nick Caistor – An ex-policeman is framed for murder in a novel that presents its world as an intractable puzzle of corruption which resists attempts to be solved.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (Chile), tr. Megan McDowell – The story of a woman who loses her sight suddenly, then finds herself having to work life out anew.

The Slaughter Yard by Esteban Echeverría (Argentina), tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe – The oldest piece of Argentine prose fiction this is the story of a young man killed by a mob for his political beliefs. A tale of powerful imagery and metaphor.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Catalonia), tr. Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell – The tumult of early 20th century history, experienced through one woman’s ordinary (yet extraordinary) life.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (Mexico), tr. Natasha Wimmer – A tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, played across the sweep of early modern history.

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Dueñas (Spain), tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García – A highly enjoyable historical yarn that moves from Mexico to Cuba and then Spain, as a miner who’s set to lose everything tries his best to stay afloat.

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 tell 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).

My Sweet Orange Tree – José Mauro de Vasconcelos

According to the press release, My Sweet Orange Tree has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. It’s a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 19 languages… but it has been out of print in English for over 40 years, until this new translation by Alison Entrekin, published by Pushkin Press. 

My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical novel, based on José Mauro de Vasconcelos’ childhood in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The book introduces us to Zezé, a precocious five-year-old with a tendency to play pranks on others, which often leads to him being beaten. He’ll tell others that he has the devil in him and should never have been born, yet he has charm and kindness to match his cheek. 

Zezé’s family struggles to get by: there are seven siblings to provide for, but Father is out of a job, so Mother has to work as much as she can at the factory. It means there are no presents waiting this Christmas in the shoes that Zezé has left outside his bedroom door. “Having a poor father is awful!” he blurts out, not realising that his father is right there to hear him. This leaves Zezé unable to act:

I felt like racing down the street and clinging to Father’s legs, crying. Telling him I’d been mean – really, really mean. But I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I had to sit on the bed. And from there I stared at my shoes, in the same corner, as empty as could be. As empty as my heart, careening out of control. 

But one of the things that’s so charming about Zezé is that he always has a plan. In this case, he decides to head out with his shoe-shine tin, to see if he can earn enough money to buy his father a gift. 

Zezé also has a broad imagination to match his resourcefulness. When the family moves house, Zezé claims a sweet-orange tree in the garden for himself. He names it Pinkie, imagines he can hear it talk, and whiles away hours riding in its branches with Tom Mix and other movie cowboys of the day. 

But friendship in the real world becomes increasingly important to Zezé. There are some memorable scenes as he becomes the helper of a man who visits the neighbourhood once a week to sing the latest popular songs and sell brochures of lyrics. Most important of all to Zezé, though, is his secret friendship with Manuel Valadares, a Portuguese with the finest car in the area. Time spent with him becomes an alternative to Zezé’s family life, a relationship that’s vivid on the page. 

Now that I’ve read My Sweet Orange Tree, I can absolutely see why this book is so beloved. Zezé is such a charming character, and there are some truly powerful moments. I’m glad to have had the chance to read this book, and warmly recommend it to you.

Book details

My Sweet Orange Tree (1968) by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, tr. Alison Entrekin (2018), Pushkin Press, 192 pages, hardback (proof copy provided for review). 

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar: #MBI2016

NassarTime for the oldest and shortest book on the Man Booker International Prize list. Raduan Nassar is a Brazilian writer who published two main works: a novel, Ancient Tillage (1975), and this novella from 1978. A Cup of Rage concerns a farmer and his younger lover who spend the night together, then argue their relationship to splinters. The couple’s argument takes up 30 pages out of 45, so we are looking at a detailed game of power.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that each chapter of A Cup of Rage consists of one long sentence. Stefan Tobler’s translation really shines here, creating unstoppable torrents of words that carry the reader along in their wake:

For a few moments in the room we seemed to be two strangers observed by somebody, and that somebody was always her and me, the two had to watch what I was doing and not what she was doing, so I sat on the edge of the bed and calmly started taking off my shoes and socks, holding my bare feet in my hands and feeling how lovely and moist they were, as if pulled out of the earth that very minute…

I found that last image quite unsettling: it’s in keeping with an individual who’s so self-regarding, with such a high opinion of himself; and it shows just how uncomfortably close the book can bring us to this character. The thing is, when we get to the couple’s confrontation, the emphasis shifts from sensations to thoughts and actions. It’s still engaging, with rising tension and the upper hand shifting back and forth; I just found that it didn’t get under my skin in the same way as the earlier chapters. This makes it a little difficult for me to get a perspective on the book as a whole; it may be that I just have to put it down to personal taste.

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Is it a shortlist contender?

For me, no. If I had found the main section as vivid as the earlier ones, it might well be in contention; and I wouldn’t rule it out from making the real shortlist. But I’ll be looking to other titles for my MBIP choice.

Elsewhere

From the shadow panel, Stu has reviewed A Cup of Rage. I’d also point out Nicholas Lezard’s review in the Guardian; and there’s an article about Nassar by translator Stefan Tobler in the Independent.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Cup of Rage (1978) by Raduan Nassar, tr. Stefan Tobler (2015), Penguin Modern Classics paperback

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

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