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Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi: #MBI2019

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (2010)
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (2018)

Today’s book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist is the first I’ve read from Oman. It’s the second novel by Jokha Alharthi, a tale of two families and social change across several generations. At its centre are three sisters, each of whom takes a different approach to love and marriage. Mayya marries a merchant’s son at her parents’ instruction, though she has an unrequited love for another man (she names her first daughter London, after the city where the man of her dreams studied). Asma loves literature and feels sure that marriage and motherhood will be wonderful, though this is not necessarily reflected in what she reads:

Why wasn’t there even one book, among all of the volumes on her shelves, which singled out motherhood as the radiant experience it must be? Had her grandfather, Shaykh Masoud, whose library her mother had inherited, not been interested in motherhood? Or were books in general reticent on this subject? She didn’t know the answer to that one, since she had never seen another library in her life.

The third sister, Khawla, has waited since childhood to marry her cousin, and still waits for him, though he has now emigrated to Canada, and she waits for him to return. All three women have their individual ideals when it comes to love; Celestial Bodies explores the different ways in which reality measures up (or fails to measure up) to those ideals.

Alongside the three sisters’ tales are episodes from the lives of other characters, which reflect different experiences and common themes across the generations. Mostly the chapters are presented out of chronological order, which turns Alharthi’s novel into a forest of stories.

Book details

Celestial Bodies (2010) by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (2018), Sandstone Press, 244 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

The Years – Annie Ernaux: #MBI2019

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008)
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

Annie Ernaux’s The Years begins with a series of scattered memories, and reflections on the ephemeral nature of existence:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

This paragraph stopped me in my tracks; it wouldn’t be the last time that happened during the book.

I can understand now I’ve read it why The Years has been accepted as a novel for the purposes of the Man Booker International Prize: it’s not so much the detail of history that lingers as the shape of the text. I’d describe The Years as an individual (auto)biography suspended in a broader account of history. It follows the life and times of a character (presumably a version of Ernaux herself) from 1941 to 2006. The wider historical canvas is mostly kept at ‘eye level’, stitched together from details that emphasise the experience of living through a particular moment in time. For example, the 1950s:

Beneath the surface of the things that never changed, last year’s circus posters with the photo of Roger Lanzac, First Communion photos handed out to schoolfriends, the Club des chansonniers on Radio Luxembourg, our days swelled with new desires. On Sunday afternoons, we crowded around the windows of the general electrics shop to watch television. Cafés invested in TV sets to lure clientele.

Ernaux also evokes the ways in which her protagonist’s mental landscapes change. The world of childhood, immediately after the Second World War, is a world of family voices telling stories, and traditions handed down:

Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countrysides of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others.

Over the period narrated in The Years, the old voices fade and machines become the main repository of knowledge (“Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality”). The old stories are ultimately replaced by the internet’s grab-bag of information. Memory itself fragments. This is what I like most about The Years: the way it evokes the changing texture of living and remembering through time.

Book details

The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

The Death of Murat Idrissi: #MBI2019

Tommy Wieringa, The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017)
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (2019)

My reading for this year’s Man Booker International Prize begins with this novella by Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa, which draws its inspiration from a court case that the author attended in 2004.

We are introduced to Ilhan and her friend Thouraya, daughters of Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands. During a visit of their own to Morocco, the young women are persuaded by their old acquaintance Saleh to conceal nineteen-year-old Murat Idrissi in the boot of their car for the journey back. When they return to Europe, they discover that Murat has died in transit; Saleh promptly disappears, leaving the women to work out for themselves what to do.

I particularly appreciated Wieringa’s portrait of characters caught between two cultures. When she was younger, Ilhan had a strong sense of herself as Dutch, one that seemed set to be reciprocated by society, but the response to 9/11 changed that:

Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – they broke her world, the whole world, in two, into we over here and them over there. And Ilhan became them. And her body became over there. She felt how the enmity nestled in her organs, how she became infected by the fear and the aversion of others. That is how she became what others thought they were seeing, a double transformation.

The women’s relationship with their Moroccan roots is complicated: for example, Thouraya is proud of the hardiness she has inherited from her father, but dismissive of what he endured to get to where he did. When Ilhan and Thouraya view living conditions in Morocco, it is clear they are doing so through Westernised eyes. Murat’s death brings these issues into sharp focus for the women, as they have a tangible reminder in their car boot of the real distance between themselves and where they’ve just been.

Wieringa’s characterisation can be broad-brush, but his writing (in Sam Garrett’s translation) is sharp. The use of a dead Moroccan as a plot device gives me pause, but on balance I think Wieringa honours the gravity of Murat’s situation, rather than just exploiting his death to teach the protagonists a lesson. Ultimately Murat remains the book’s centre, all the more so because he is denied a voice of his own.

I found The Death of Murat Idrissi a welcome addition to the MBIP longlist, and I will certainly be reading Wieringa again in the future.

Book details

The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017) by Tommy Wieringa, tr. Sam Garrett (2019), Scribe Publications, 102 pages, hardback. [UK edition] [Australian edition]

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Man Booker International Prize 2019: let the shadowing begin!

It’s that time of year again: time for the Man Booker International Prize. As ever, I will be reading along with the shadow panel. This year, I tried to make an effort to get ahead by reading more in advance (I’d read 16 eligible titles, which is more than usual). The longlist was announced today:

  • Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (Oman, Sandstone Press).
  • Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press).
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (France, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, tr. Sora Kim-Russell (South Korea, Scribe).
  • Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf, tr. Jonathan Wright (Palestine/Iceland, Granta).
  • Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, tr. Sam Taylor (France, Granta).
  • The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (Germany, Serpent’s Tail).
  • Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell (Argentina, Oneworld).
  • The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (Sweden, MacLehose Press).
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Poland, Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, tr. Anne McLean (Colombia, MacLehose Press).
  • The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa, tr. Sam Garrett (Netherlands, Scribe).
  • The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, tr. Sophie Hughes (Chile, And Other Stories).

After all my preparation, I have read a grand total of one book on this list, which just goes to show how many ways this prize can go. Much of this list is an unknown quantity to me: even the book I’ve read (Drive Your Plow) is one I’ll have to read again, because I didn’t know what I thought of it the first time. I’m disappointed that Convenience Store Woman and T Singer especially didn’t make the cut, but I am hopeful of finding gems on the longlist; in particular, I’m looking forward to reading Samanta Schweblin again, having loved Fever Dream.

More generally, I’m pleased to see such a strong showing for small publishers (particular congratulations to Scribe and Sandstone, who are longlisted for the first time). It’s also notable that the list as a whole skews away from Europe and male writers.

(A couple of housekeeping points: although The Years is part of Fitzcarraldo’s essay list, it was published as a novel in France, and was accepted for submission by the Booker after discussion with the publisher. The Faculty of Dreams and The Pine Islands were due to be published in April, but have both been brought forward to 21 March).

My fellow shadow panel members this year are Tony, Bellezza, Emma, Oisin, Naomi, Barbara, Vivek, Paul, Frances, and Antonomasia. Do pay them a visit.

The official MBIP shortlist will be announced on 9 April, with the winner to follow on 21 May. Until then, I will be reading and reviewing as many of the books as I can. Let’s go!

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an academic at University College Dublin. Notes to Self is a collection of personal essays, first published in Ireland by Tramp Press, and now given a UK edition by Penguin. The book begins with Pine and her sister visiting their seriously ill father in a Greek hospital:

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.

This is typically unflinching of Pine as she delves into her life across the six essays. In the first piece, ‘Notes on Intemperance’, she details that immediate situation, where she and her sister have to clean up and look after their father because the hospital is so understaffed, but also her complicated relationship with her father’s illness. He was an alcoholic, which caused liver failure and the haemmorage that has put him in hospital, but also left him cold and antagonistic as a father. For Pine, this made him difficult to love:

I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

Pine captures these ambivalent feelings on the page, but she also confronts what it means for herself and her family to write about life in this way. Yet ultimately there’s a sense that this act of writing is vital: “what my dad really taught me, despite himself perhaps, is that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain.”

Through writing, Pine then takes possession of deeply personal experiences: infertility, her parents’ separation, sexual violence. Sometimes the subject of an essay is intertwined with writing itself. For example, Pine begins ‘Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes’ with the metaphor of a writer bleeding on to the page, before going to consider periods and societal taboos around her body. At the end of this essay, she wonders what her body might say if it could tell its story:

I think it would talk about blood. Its mesmerising flow and its ebb. About ending and renewing. I think it would talk about the touch of my fingers and my hands and another’s lips. The feel of skin on skin. Wet and slow. Soft and hard. The shock of cold, the pleasure of warmth…

Notes to Self is a raw and powerful reading experience. It’s often harrowing, but there are also compelling moments of hope and optimism. The passage I’ve just quoted reads like that to me: hope through writing, the stuff of life taken apart and rebuilt to find a way forward.

Book details

Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine, Hamish Hamilton, 206 pages, hardback. Also available in Tramp Press paperback.

Reading round-up: early March

Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant (2018)

Newly longlisted for the Women’s Prize, Lillian Li’s debut novel centres on the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. The restaurant is owned by brothers Johnny and Jimmy Han, who inherited it from their father. Jimmy wants to set up his own place, but he’s gone to Uncle Pang, a dubious family friend, for help – and that’s unlikely to end well. Alongside this strand, Li’s novel explores the relationship between two long-serving members of staff, and the lives of the younger generation. The end result is a composite portrait of a family (and the wider community of the restaurant) at a point of pressure and change, where the future is far from certain.

Alan Parks, February’s Son (2019)

February’s Son is the second of Alan Parks’s crime novels set in 1970s Glasgow, following on from Bloody January. We pick up the action in February 1973, when detective Harry McCoy is tasked with solving the murder of a young footballer who had the words ‘BYE BYE’ carved into his chest. The trail leads McCoy into the world of local gangs, and puts him back in touch with his childhood friend-turned-gangster Stevie Cooper. This is another intriguing mystery from Parks; the ongoing development of McCoy’s character is also interesting, as he sails (or finds himself pushed) ever closer to the wind.

Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won

I’ll Go On is a novel in three parts, each narrated by a different character: Sora, her sister Nana, and their childhood friend Naghi. Nana is pregnant, which is tough news for Sora to take, because it puts her in mind of the difficult relationship she and Nana had with their own mother. Hwang’s novel chronicles a process of coming to terms with (or trying to break away from) past and present. I particularly like the different voices captured in Yae Won’s translation, as they cast each narrator in a different light from section to section.

Trevor Mark Thomas, The Bothy (2019)

This debut novel begins with Tom fleeing to a remote, run-down pub called the Bothy. His girlfriend’s family blame Tom for her death, and now there is a price on his head. He is taken in by Frank, the gangster in charge of the Bothy, but even this may not be enough to protect him. By keeping the focus tightly on Tom’s present predicament, rather than the background that led up to it, Thomas gives his novel a sense of urgency and drive which pushes the reader on. The Bothy is a hothouse of character that remains tense to the end.

New indexes

I thought it was about time the blog had a better browsing method than the unwieldy drop-down list of categories. So I’ve added three index pages to the menu:

Author Index A-H

Author Index I-P

Author Index Q-Z

Hopefully this will make it easier to explore the archives.

The Capital – Robert Menasse

Today’s post is the latest stop on a blog tour for The Capital by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (translated by Jamie Bulloch), which MacLehose Press are publishing on 21 February. The Capital is a novel of the EU, a panorama of political life in Brussels with a streak of satire. It begins with an escaped pig at large in the city, witnessed by various characters. The pig reappears throughout the novel, tying its different strands together and serving as a constant symbol of the absurd.

The central plot strand of The Capital concerns the upcoming (in the novel) fiftieth anniversary of the European Commission. Fenia Xenopoulou of the Directorate-General for Culture is charge of organising a celebration, though she (along with most others involved) is more interested in it as a means of career advancement. Her assistant has the idea to put Auschwitz at the heart of the event, but other parts of the Commission are not so keen. The wheels gradually start to come off.

I particularly like the way that The Capital balances humour and seriousness. For example, we gain a more poignant perspective from the character of David de Vriend, an Auschwitz survivor:

He wanted to draw up a list, write down the names of all those who had survived alongside him and who he knew to still be alive; he hadn’t received notification of their deaths, at least. Why? He had memories, they thrust themselves forwards. Names would flash up in his mind, he saw faces, heard voices, peered into dark eyes, saw gestures and movements, and he felt the hunger, this chaff cutter of life that devours the body fat, then pulps the muscles and then the soul, which you first discover – if at all – when the hunger becomes a metaphor: the hunger for life.

Alongside the stories of these characters, The Capital includes a trade protest, a murder investigation, and more besides. It all adds up to a multifaceted portrait of a city and an institution.

***

The Capital blog tour started yesterday with Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. It continues tomorrow, on publication day, at Lizzy’s Literary Life and NB.

Book details

The Capital (2017) by Robert Menasse, tr. Jamie Bulloch (2019), MacLehose Press, 417 pages, hardback (source: review copy provided by publisher).

Follow Me to Ground – Sue Rainsford

I like to follow the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, because I’m interested in the kind of fiction it stands for, and it’s good for highlighting worthwhile books that I might otherwise miss. Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, from the Irish publisher New Island Books, is one of those. It caught my interest on this year’s Republic of Consciousness longlist, and when I saw Daniel Davis Wood of Splice compare it on Twitter to The Man Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila, that was enough to convince me to read Follow Me to Ground.

Now that I’ve read both books, I agree with Daniel’s comparison: Rainsford’s novel has the same sense as Répila’s of taking place in its own bubble of reality, and I could even imagine it as a stylised animated film, like Attila’s Horse. Rainsford’s narrator is Ada, who lives with her father in a village whose inhabitants (which they call “Cures”) come to them for healing. Despite appearances, Ada and Father are not exactly human. Father can be positively animalistic:

There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.

Ada doesn’t partake in that behaviour, but both she and Father were born in “the Ground”, the lawn of their house, which has mysterious properties and almost a mind of its own. Father has tamed a section of the Ground which they use to bury those Cures who require more intensive healing. Even their most straightforward curative techniques appear strange to our eyes:

Claudia Levine arrived at noon and I sang her belly open, sang her sickness away – tricked it into a little bowl under the table. Closed her up again, woke her up again. Told her she’d be sore in the morning, waved her away down the drive, poured her sickness down the drain.

The way Ada describes herself and Father, we never get a firm handle on exactly what they are or what they do. The net effect of this is to create a sense of mystery at the novel’s heart which gnaws away at the reader.

I once read an annoying story by China Miéville about magical playing cards, which essentially used evocative names (such as “the Four of Chimneys”) in lieu of revealing anything concrete about what these cards actually did. This technique didn’t work for me, because it just highlighted how arbitrary the whole thing was – to me, there was simply nothing behind the names. I find that Rainsford’s approach works much better: she reveals enough of Ada’s world to catch the imagination, but not so much as to much as to define it. The mystery remains alive.

Ada is in love with a Cure named Samson, and her relationship with him becomes central to Follow Me to Ground. She grows increasingly possessive of him, in the face of disapproval from both Father and Olivia, Samson’s sister. Here is where the novel’s approach really comes into its own, because the obsession gnawing away at Ada mirrors the reader’s sense of ungraspable strangeness. And (without wishing to say too much) the matter of what ultimately happens is driven by that same sense of unresolved mystery. I’m glad to have found Follow Me to Ground through the Republic of Consciousness Prize; I’ll be looking out for more of Sue Rainsford’s work, too.

Book details

Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford, New Island Books, 204 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

An individual without centre: Nocilla Lab by Agustín Fernández Mallo

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a physicist who, in his Nocilla Trilogy, has been writing the universe as understood by contemporary science into novel form. Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience are structured as networks of themes, images and ideas, without a traditional anchor-point around which to revolve. Now here’s the third part of the trilogy, Nocilla Lab, which takes what Dream and Experience did with the world at large and applies it to notions of individual identity – in this novel, it’s the protagonist who is without centre.

First off, let me say that this is a brilliant translation by Thomas Bunstead: Nocilla Lab is divided into four sections, each written in a distinct style, yet with subtle interplay between them. The first part is (bar a few quoted passages) written as a single sentence over seventy pages. In this section, the narrator (Fernández Mallo himself, or a version of him) describes visiting Sardinia with his girlfriend, to work on what he refers to mysteriously as their “Project” (which they later abandon). The narration here is propulsive and disorienting all at once, looping back on itself and weaving together past and future. But there’s also a certain rawness to it, a sense that these are thoughts coming straight from the narrator’s mind.

This section also summarises what I think of as Nocilla Lab‘s key theme, the fundamental similarity of things and people:

…one travels to different countries and sees there very different things flora- and fauna-wise, customs- and appearances-wise, all the things that distinguish races and cultures, and yet, sooner or later, one comes to the undeniable conclusion or formulation of what might even be a law, namely that everything, looked at in sufficient detail, is identical to its counterpart on the far side of the world: zoom in and the leaf of a scrub plant in Sardinia is the same as that of an Alaskan pine tree, the skin pores of a Sudanese person are identical to those of an Inuit, and there really is nothing between a Buddha figure in Bangkok and a statuette of Christ in Despeñaperos, Jaén, and so it is with everything…

One of the ways this theme plays out in Nocilla Lab is by undermining the idea of the protagonist as an individual with a coherent identity. The novel’s second part takes place in recognisably the same situation as its first, with (one is given to assume) the same characters. But the prose is more conventionally novelistic, which makes this section feel different – more distant, more settled. The narrator and his girlfriend come across an old prison which has been turned into an eco-hotel (albeit mainly so the proprietor can keep himself to himself, rather than with the intention of having many guests). What initially may seem quirky turns darker when the hotel owner claims to be named Agustín Fernández Mallo, and working on a Project similar to the narrator’s.

Up to now, the events of Nocilla Lab could pretty much have passed for real life, but this… this is the sort of thing that happens in a novel, so it’s only fitting that it’s related in prose that reads like a novel. But this turn of events also raises the question: who is the narrator? Can we trust him to be the same individual in the second part as he was in the first? This question becomes even more pointed in the novel’s third section, a typed manuscript, because here the narrator has assumed the hotelier’s identity and apparently let go of his own previous one. There’s continuity of narrative between the novel’s parts, but the sense of a single ‘I’ behind it dissolves.

The form taken by each of Nocilla Lab‘s sections also moves us progressively further away from the narrator. By the fourth part, we’re firmly on the outside looking in, at a comic strip. The protagonist here looks like Fernández Mallo, though when asked who he is, he replies, “Not sure.” This individual travels to an oil rig where he meets the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who tells a story. Two men hear similar noises: one is being kept awake by his watch, the other a prisoner about to be set free. The same thing means something very different depending on the context – rather like the narrator, who changes with the scene, until he disappears within versions of himself.

Elsewhere

I must mention MacKenzie Warren’s excellent review of Nocilla Lab at Splice, which helped clarify some of my thinking here.

Book details

Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2018), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 192 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

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