CategoryRussian

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

The Russian Riveter 

Last week, the European Literature Network published the second edition of its regular magazine The Riveter. This one is devoted to Russian literature, and has fiction and poetry in translation, as well as reviews – including my review of Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (tr. Boris Dralyuk). 

The Russian Riveter is available to download free as a 48-page PDF from here. Do take a look. 

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov: a European Literature Network review

Bickford FuseI have a new review up at the European Literature Network this month: Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk). It’s a journey through an absurd, askew version of the USSR under Khrushchev. We follow a shipwrecked sailor as he wanders the land through a series of strange encounters, all the while trailing the safety fuse with which he could blow it all up.

I enjoyed The Bickford Fuse, and the way it creates its own little world. Read my review to find out more.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Bickford Fuse (2009) by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Dralyuk (2016), MacLehose Press paperback

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010’s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Book notes: Kurkov, Cornwell, Dunthorne

Andrey Kurkov, The Milkman in the Night (2009/11)

Ten years on from the English-language publication of his debut, Death and the Penguin, comes Andrey Kurkov’s ninth book. The Milkman in the Night (translated from the Russian by Amanda Love Darragh) tells of three main characters whose lives intertwine in contemporary Kiev: Dmitry, the airport sniffer-dog handler who finds a case of ampoules containing a substance which has a remarkable effect on those who consume it; Irina, the single mother who sells her breast milk for a living; and Semyon, who finds that he has been out walking at night with no memory of doing so – and his business partner’s report from monitoring those journeys only leaves Semyon with more questions.

For all the strangeness in its pages (and it’s by no means confined to the three protagonists), The Milkman in the Night has a strongly deadpan quality, both in the reactions of its characters to events, and in Kurkov’s prose. This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the novel: on the one hand, it creates an effective contrast which draws the reader in by making one want to know just where the book’s going next; on the other, it puts a certain distance between reader and characters which makes engaging emotionally that bit more difficult. But the structure works well, a series of short chapters that shift between viewpoints, creating a narrative skein that gradually reveals the connections between characters, and a truth that may or may not be fully uncovered.

This review first appeared at We Love This Book.

Guardian interview with Andrey Kurkov.
Reviews elsewhere: Marina Lewycka for the Financial Times; Tom Adair for The Scotsman.

Hugh Cornwell, Window on the World (2011)

The first novel by singer-songwriter (and former Stranglers frontman) Hugh Cornwell is the story of Jamie Thornberry, a botanical writer who becomes infatuated with an artist named Katherine Gaunt whom he meets at an exhibition. He buys one of her paintings at auction; hears of another one in Paris and buys that; then tracks down a third to a Paris apartment, and takes it for himself. Jamie becomes determined to collect Katherine’s works; his methods for doing so grow more extreme – and he may be just as obsessed with the artist herself.

Window on the World is a fine character study. Cornwell initially portrays Jamie as reasonable enough; even when he steals a painting, we can rationalise it as an aberration brought on by the sudden intensity of his love for Katherine’s work (and even the protagonist seems to recognise he’s done something wrong and out of character). But, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to explain Jamie’s action’s away like that – and there’s a brilliant perceptual shift towards the end which reveals that Jamie may not be such a reliable narrator after all. It’s the kind of narrative move that makes one want to go back to the beginning and re-read to see what other clues there were, what other stories were told without our realising.

Hugh Cornwell’s website
Extract fromWindow on the World [PDF]
Quartet Books

Joe Dunthorne, Submarine (2008)

I enjoyed hearing Joe Dunthorne read from his second novel, Wild Abandon, earlier this year; but I’ve decided to start with his debut before going on to that newer book. So: Submarine is narrated by Oliver Tate, fifteen years of age in mid-1990s Swansea. He’s discovering long words and girls (in particular Jordana Bevan, who likes to set fire to things, and came on to Oliver at least as much as he did to her). But Oliver senses problems at home, because he’s found an empty bottle of antidepressants in his father’s waste-bin, and is suspicious about his mother’s going on a retreat where an old (male) friend will be teaching capoeira.

I warmed to Dunthorne’s prose style and observation from the very beginning, when Oliver describes a modem as ‘playing bad jazz’. The narrative voice as a whole rings true, the fancy words and facts peppered throughout symbolic of a young man who’s smart but still unsure of his place in the world (we see this particularly strikingly when Jordana tells Oliver that her mother has a brain tumour; all his words are no help in reacting appropriately).

That sense of being only halfway there is also present in how Oliver reacts to events in his life; he instinctively understands something of what’s going on around him, but doesn’t grasp all the subtleties, and that means things don’t always work out as well as he’d like. Now I really want to see the film of Submarine, because I can imagine some of these scenes playing out really well on screen, such as when Oliver goes to the retreat to find out what his mum is really up to, or when he tries to ‘help’ with Jordana’s dog.  All in all, this is a great debut; and now I’m looking forward to Wild Abandon even more.

Joe Dunthorne’s website
Wales Online video interview with Dunthorne
Reviews elsewhere: Chasing Bawa; Tim Adams for the Observer.

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