CategorySpanish

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

Inventing Love – José Ovejero

The book I’m talking about today is part of Peter Owen Publishers’ ‘World Series’, which is published in association with Istros Books. Twice a year, they publ ish a set of three titles from the same country or region; Spain is the country of choice this spring. The publishers have kindly sent me a set of the books, so I’ll be looking at all three in the next few weeks.

Inventing Love is the second of José Ovejero’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is Samuel, a single man drifting through life at forty. He’s someone who has trouble with the idea of love:

I’ve always avoided the word ‘love’. It’s a noun that’s been devalued, a coin so overused that it’s been rubbed smooth, so that you could hold it between your fingers without feeling the relief design, a coin that I wouldn’t dare use to pay for something in case I was accused of being a fraudster…Does anyone really use it? Do couples really gaze into each other’s eyes and say ‘I love you’?

(Translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

One night, Samuel receives a phone call telling him that his lover, Clara, has been killed in a car crash. The thing is, Samuel has never known anyone called Clara. Seizing the chance to add a little colour to his life – and curious as to who this Clara might have been – he goes along to the funeral.

None of Clara’s family or friends knows what ‘her’ Samuel looks like, so it’s easy enough for ‘our’ Samuel to step into the role. After the funeral, he is approached by a woman who turns out to be Clara’s sister, Carina. She’s heard a lot about Samuel, and is curious about this man who led her sister to have an affair. Carina gives Samuel her card; over time, they get talking – about Clara most of all.

At first, it’s Samuel who gets to learn about Clara, allowing him to build his mental picture of this young woman he never knew. But Carina wants to understand the side of her sister that only Clara’s lover would have known… so Samuel has an opportunity to imagine part of Clara’s character for himself, and indeed to shape the image of Clara in the minds of those who did know her.

I don’t think the events of Inventing Love are meant to be taken literally – there are too many fortuitous coincidences for that. Instead, I think of Ovejero’s novel as a space to explore what it means to have a mental picture of someone else, by stretching the concept to such an extreme. 

One issue emerging from the book is how well we can actually know others. Samuel is clear on his view:

We share our lives with strangers. We can live with someone for decades and not know how she really feels when she says ‘I love you’ or replies to a question with the words ‘I’m not angry.’…We live with fantasies we create for ourselves in order to explain to the other person and to create a relationship that reassures us and gives us what we want.

He’s right in a strict sense, in that we are all individuals without direct access to each other’s minds. But then again, it’s not as if Samuel has made much of an effort in the long-term relationships department, so how sure can he be that it’s impossible to know another person?

Rather ironically, there is someone else whom Samuel thinks he knows, and that’s Clara. After some digging around online, he manages to find her Facebook profile, but he doesn’t want to go any further: “I don’t want to enter the false intimacy of her wall because I already know who Clara is, and I don’t want reality to spoil her.”

So there you go: Samuel can gather and imagine all the detail about Clara that he may; his image of, and feelings towards, her could be larger-than-life – but the Clara in his mind will never be ‘real’. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, perhaps the key question facing Samuel is whether love is something he can invent for himself, or whether it has to be found. 

Elsewhere 

Read an excerpt from Inventing Love at European Literature Network. 

At the time of writing, I can’t find many English-language reviews of the book online. Michael Orthofer has written it up at The Complete Review; he also links to Larry Nolen’s review of the Spanish original at the OF Blog, as well as a number of reviews in Spanish. 

Book details 

Inventing Love (2013) by José Ovejero, tr. Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 219 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Fever Dream: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell


While thinking over my preferences recently, I realised that many of my favourite novels could be described as ‘short and sharp (or strange, or strong)’.  Fever Dream is a good example.

The novel takes place in a hospital (or maybe the liminal space behind closed eyes), where Amanda is dying. She talks to a boy named David, who urges her to remember what happened to bring her here.


Amanda recalls a conversation with Carla, who is the neighbour of her holiday home and also David’s mother. Carla tells Amanda how her son once drank poisoned river water; she took David to the “woman in the green house”, who performed a ritual to send half of David’s spirit to a new body, thereby diluting the poison.


Amanda’s conversation with David is a blur of Carla’s tale and her own memories, coloured by Amanda’s concerns for her daughter Nina (whom she likes to keep well within “rescue distance”). David keeps interjecting, encouraging Amanda to focus on what’s “important” as she sorts through her (real? imagined?) recollections.


As a result of all this, Fever Dream is a deeply unstable text: you never know whether what you’re reading will fall away to reveal another layer of reality beneath. David’s interruptions prevent Amanda from settling into an easy groove of narration. She becomes a participant like the reader, uncovering the novel as she goes. That process is a powerful reading experience.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Yes, without a doubt. Fever Dream is my favourite of the books that I’ve read so far; it’s a potential winner as far as I’m concerned.

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

Some reviews elsewhere

I haven’t been posting links to my external reviews lately, so here’s a round-up of the most recent four: all books that are worth your time.

winterlingsThe Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (tr. Samuel Rutter). Twenty-five years after being evacuated to England, two sisters return to the Galician parish of their childhood. The place is otherworldly to them, but they also have a glamour of their own – and so mystery encroaches on the reader from all sides. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

 

beast

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Second part of the thematic trilogy that began with The Wake. This volume is set in the present day, and focuses on an Englishman in search of his place in the landscape. A strange creature haunts the corner of his eye, and his language grows more primal as he heads further into hallucination. Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

 

brussoloThe Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo (tr. Edward Gauvin). A tantalising slice of weirdness set in a reality where art is retrieved from the depths of dreams. One man believes that the dream realm has its own objective existence – and he’ll risk his very self to prove it. Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

 

tobacconist

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (tr. Charlotte Collins). A new novel in English from the author of A Whole Life. The tale of a young man who becomes a tobacconist’s apprentice in 1930s Vienna and strikes up a friendship with Sigmund Freud. Love begins to stir, just as the shadow of the Nazis grows. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

NeverParisI like to think I’m over it by now, but sometimes I still have to tell myself: it’s not about the subject matter. That is to say, whether or not the ostensible subject matter of a novel appeals to me is not a reliable indicator of how I’m going to respond to the book. Self-imposed starvation, high school scandals, coppers going off the rails, society parties… They’ve all featured in fiction that rewired my inner universe, because it wasn’t the topic that counted, but the interplay of language, theme and image. Still, if Never Any End to Paris had not been written by Enrique Vila-Matas –had I not trusted him after Dublinesque – I might not have read this book. That would have been a mistake.

Never Any End to Paris is presented as the text of a three-day lecture delivered by Vila-Matas, dealing principally withthe period in the 1970s when he lived in Paris, in a garret owned by the writer Marguerite Duras. Back then, he wanted to live a life like that depicted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast; and was trying to write his first novel, The Lettered Assassin – a novel with which, Vila-Matas says, he wanted to kill his readers. There’s drily absurd humour to be found in the author’s exploits:

…I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco.

(Translation by Anne McLean)

But look beneath these trappings… the real subject of Vila-Matas’ ‘lecture’ is irony, and irony permeates the novel. We see the young Vila-Matas in Paris playing the part of a certain kind of writer; and performing politics more than actually believing in a given position. But then I discover from David Winters’ essay on Never Any End to Paris that Le asesina ilustrada was actually Vila-Matas’ second novel, not his first; so how much of the history here can we really trust?

Then again, asks Vila-Matas, what happens to irony when you see something in real life? What does it even mean to see something in real life, anyway? The author talks about longing to visit New York, then being disappointed with the place, because the reality of it couldn’t live up to his dream. Vila-Matas also describes how he’d seen on film the study where Trotsky was assassinated, then visited it in real life and found the experience unnerving:

I found it hard to disassociate that study from the one that appeared in the fiction of Losey’s film. Even so, I tried not to forget that this was the real place where Trotsky had been assassinated. So – I thought – this is a historic place. I couldn’t think of anything else. I just kept repeating obtusely to myself, this is a historic place.

Again, the imaginary location looms larger than the real one. But what is ‘real’, here? Look closely enough at Never Any End to Paris, and nothing remains solid: there’s no city beyond the descriptions on the page; no narrator beyond the ‘I’ whose voice we accept; no lecture beyond a framing device; no novel beyond that to which we are prepared to give consent. But of course this is true of all novels, and readers consent to the realities of fiction routinely. Vila-Matas’ approach makes us confront both perspectives – the fictional ‘reality’ and the mechanics of the construction – at the same time.

There is never any end to Paris, Vila-Matas assures us – the Paris of his imagination, that is:

Everything ends except Paris, for there is never any end to Paris, it is always with me, it chases me, it is my youth. There can be an end to this summer, it will end. The world can go to ruin, it will be ruined. But to my youth, to Paris, there is never any end. How terrible.

In reality, there is an end even to this Paris: you just close the book. Equally, of course, there is indeed no end to Paris, because it persists in the mind, and will emerge again whenever the book is read.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Anne McLean (2011), Vintage paperback.

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont

SandalwoodAfter Monday’s detour to Wales, it’s back to Spanish Lit Month with a story of displacement and searching, by Asha Miró (who was herself born in India and adopted by a Spanish couple at the age of seven) and. We meet three children whose worlds are upended in the 1970s: in Addis Ababa, Solomon’s father is a cook in the emperor’s palace, until the emperor is deposed by the military; several years later, Solomon is one of a number of Ethopian children awarded scholarships to Cuba. In India, an orphan named Muna is sent from her home village of Kolpewadi to work in a Bombay carpet factory; eventually she ends up working for a family, which is where she learns to read and write. There is also Muna’s sister, Sita, who was sent to an orphanage in Bombay at age three, and has no memory of the older girl; Sita wishes for parents of her own, and soon finds herself on a plane, heading for her new life in Barcelona.

Something that really comes across in Traces of Sandalwood is the sense of dislocation and upheaval that each of the three protagonists experiences. For example, Solomon’s voyage to Cuba:

The first days seemed very long. On deck, the boys and girls sat on the floor and cried inconsolably. Many of them hadn’t shed a tear since they had said goodbye to their families to go to Tatek, but now the sensation of being on that imposing ship with its smoking chimney, a kind of floating building that was moving away from solid ground toward a totally unknown world, finally overcame them. Now there was no-one shouting at them and telling them that men don’t cry. It seemed as if, suddenly, all of the adults had disappeared and left them alone, adrift in the middle of the water.

(Translation by Charlotte Coombe.)

But perhaps the most striking thing about this novel is its structure: after we leave the children behind, the narrative jumps forward 25 years, and we have to acquaint ourselves with the characters all over again. Muna, for example, is now an international movie star, and keen to track down her sister after all this time. As adults, the three protagonists’ lives come together as they could never have imagined.

By leaving that gap between past and present, Miró and Soler-Pont make the experience of reading Traces of Sandalwood reflect their characters’ lives: the disorientation of being in an unfamiliar place or situation; a heightened sense of life as a series of distinct (albeit linked) episodes. We see the children’s lives cast up into the air when we meet them; by the time we leave them as adults, we have a sense that maybe they have landed well.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Traces of Sandalwood by Asha Miró & Anna Soler-Pont (2007), tr. Charlotte Coombe (2016), World Editions paperback

 

The Transmigration of Bodies: ii – networks and conversations

TransmigrationThis is the second in a series of three posts on Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (tr. Lisa Dillman). The first post is here.

The world of The Transmigration of Bodies revolves around personal and familial networks. Foremost, of course, are the crime families: by the time of that initial call to the Redeemer, Dolphin already knows as much as he wants to, as far as he’s concerned; the job he is hiring the Redeemer for will be a strictly practical exercise (there is more to be found out in the end, but that’s fiction for you). We’re also told of a time when a boyfriend attempted to abduct Baby Girl from a shop, and “someone called one of Baby Girl’s brothers – yes, everyone knows fucking everyone,” comments the narrator, wryly.

Actually, the world of Herrera’s novel does not just revolve around these networks – it emerges from them. The underworld through which the Redeemer moves would not exist without the relationships that underpin it, and that affects how we perceive the book’s reality. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Makina crosses the border between Mexico and the US, but it’s not a precisely geographical space: it’s fuzzy. We don’t experience it as a detached observer, but from Makina’s view, peeling back layer after later as she travels on.

It’s similar in The Transmigration of Bodies: the city comes across as less a collection of streets and buildings than one of conversations and encounters, with the invisible currents of familial connection humming in the background. The Redeemer can get along in this world partly because he understands when and how to say the right thing:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person.

In a world of conversations and relationships, words become currency; and someone like the Redeemer knows how to spend wisely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2015), And Other Stories paperback

The Transmigration of Bodies: i – names

TransmigrationThe Transmigration of Bodies is the second of Yuri Herrera’s novels to be translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories. The first was Signs Preceding the End of the World, one of my very favourite books from last year. Where Signs was a book of borders, Transmigration is more concerned with networks and exchange; but that same sense of hallucinating reality is ever-present. I have three posts aboutthis new book lined up, starting with a few notes on names…

In the first chapter, Herrera’s narrator wakes up, looks out on a city that’s been quietened by the plague, and gets frisky with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde. Throughout all of this, we know him only as a pronoun. It’s only at the end of the chapter, when our man has taken a phone call, that he becomes the Redeemer.

The Redeemer has been called upon by Dolphin Fonseca to retrieve the latter’s son Romeo from another crime family, the Costas, in an exchange. What the Redeemer will be exchanging, he discovers later, is the daughter of the Costa family, Baby Girl.

As you might gather from the above, it’s a rare character in The Transmigration of Bodies who gets to be known by an actual name, rather than a nickname or epithet. “Some sad fuck so much as takes a bite of bread and we got to find a name for it,” thinks the Redeemer. These aliases help to mark the contours of the novel’s world: when the Redeemer answers that call from Dolphin, he is explicitly leaving behind a period (however fleeting) of anonymity and stepping back into the city’s underworld. Baby Girl doesn’t like her nickname; but, when she speaks her real name aloud, we’re not told what it is – she’s as bound by the alias as she is by social and familial forces.

The nicknames also slide into a more general euphemistic language that sets the terms of engagement with the crime world:

Banished man alias Mennonite. Broken man alias Redeemer. Lonely old soul alias Light of my life. Ravaged woman alias Wonder where she’s gone. Get revenge alias Get even. Truly fucked alias Not to worry. Contempt alias Nobody remembers him. Scared shitless alias Didn’t see a thing. Scared shitless alias Doing just fine. Some sad fuck alias Chip off the old block. Just what I was hoping for alias You won’t get away with this. Housebroken words alias Nothing but truth.

There are some things that can only be done under an alias. And there are some things you don’t say about them, at least not directly.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

From the Archives: Spanish Lit

Today, for Spanish Lit Month, a look back through my archives. This is a list of all my reviews of books translated from the languages of Spain, in reverse order of posting. It’s not a huge number (in the early years of this blog, I didn’t read many translations), but I wanted to link to everything in one place. So – positive or negative, short or long – it’s all here. Just to clarify a few things: all books are translated from Spanish unless otherwise indicated; some links go to external websites; and anything labelled ‘note’ is a few lineswithin a longer round-up post.

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