Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
TagAnd Other Stories
After Plume, here’s my second review of the week for Splice. Empty Words (tr. Annie McDermott) is the first novel by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero to appear in English. A synopsis does not necessarily sound like much: it’s written as a series of handwriting exercises, alongside a longer discourse that its protagonist writes, trying (and largely failing) to keep content at bay. There’s more going on than meets the eye: I learnt a lot about the book through the process of reviewing. In the end, it’s the narrator’s attempt to take control of his own life and world.
Empty Words (1996) by Mario Levrero, tr. Annie McDermott (2019), And Other Stories, 152 pages, paperback.
The US edition is published by Coffee House Press.
This 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 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
Today is the third birthday of that fine publisher And Other Stories. I enjoy their books (see what I thought of Down the Rabbit Hole, Lightning Rods, All Dogs are Blue, and Quesadillas), and I love what they stand for as a publisher: they have a strong and distinctive editorial vision; they champion fiction in translation; they care about the design of their books. So when they asked if I’d like to host a giveaway to mark the anniversary, I was only too happy to say yes.
I wanted to choose a book from each of And Other Stories’ years, so the following titles are up for grabs:
As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?
Profound and thrilling, Swimming Home reveals how the most devastating secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.
Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon
Translated by Donal McLaughlin
Lukas Zbinden leans on the arm of Kâzim, as they walk slowly down the stairway towards the door of his old people’s home. Step by step, the irrepressible Lukas recounts the life he shared with his wife Emilie and his son. Different in so many ways, what was the secret of their life-long love? And why is it so hard for him to talk to his son?
Gradually we get to know a man with a twinkle in his eye and learn his captivating story. Zbinden’s Progress is heart-rending, heart-warming and hilarious.
Anarchy in Mexico – a comic novel about screwed-up politics and families from the author of Down the Rabbit Hole.
Orestes’ mother prepares hundreds of quesadillas for Orestes and the rest of their brood. After another fraudulent election and the disappearance of his younger brothers Castor and Pollux, he takes to the road. With Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos serves up a madcap satire of politics, big families, and what it means to be middle class.
Here is how the giveaway will work:
- To enter, leave a comment on this post, listing the three books in your order of preference.
- Entries will be accepted up to 23.59 UK time on Saturday 12 October. Multiple entries will not be accepted. Sorry, but the giveaway is UK only.
- After that time, I will use a random number generator to select three winning entries. The first winner automatically gets their first choice of book. The second winner will receive whichever of the two remaining titles is higher in their order of preference. The third winner will get the last remaining book.
- If you are a winner, I will contact you via the e-mail address you leave with your comment, and ask for your postal address. I will then give your details to And Other Stories, who will send your prize to you directly. Your details will not be used for any other purpose.
- I will publish the winners’ names, and the books they receive, on the blog.
Sound good? Then leave a comment and try your luck!
One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed going to the World Literature Series of events at the London Review Bookshop is the serendipity of learning about something I don’t know that well, which then turns out to be fascinating (so far, I’ve heard talks on Japanese book design and the Thousand and One Nights). Still, it is also nice to have the reference points of a more familiar subject, which is what I had for the latest event.
The evening was hosted by the excellent And Other Stories press, as publisher Stefan Tobler interviewed Juan Pablo Villalobos, the Mexican author of Down the Rabbit Hole (which I reviewed here) and Quesadillas (which I reviewed here). We began with Villalobos reading from the opening of Quesadillas, first in Spanish (cue laughter from the Spanish-speakers in the audience and those of us who’d already read the book in English and know what the beginning is like), then English (cue laughter from everyone else). Tobler then read from another And Other Stories title, Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s All Dogs are Blue (which I reviewed here), which Villalobos has translated into Spanish from the original Portugese. Both readings underlined how much these books are spoken texts.
The interview section started with Villalobos’s experience of translating All Dogs are Blue. The author said that he viewed translation as responding to an instinct to share a book you love with other readers (he’d been introduced to the book by Tobler, and immediately wanted to translate it for a Spanish-speaking audience). Thinking about it, I suspect that I’m responding to a similar instinct when I write about books.
I’m always interested to hear about the different kinds of choices that translators have to make. For Villalobos, there was the issue of slang; he ended up producing two versions, one Spanish, one Mexican. He also made appoint of leaving in a lot of the Brazilian words, as he wanted the reader to remember that this was a Brazilian book. Villalobos suggested that the power of All Dogs are Blue lay in its imperfections, and I think that’s very true; the rhythm, flow and idiosyncracies of its language draw you into the narrator’s world.
Turning to Villalobos’s own work, he has been widely translated himself: Down the Rabbit Hole has been translated into fifteen languages, Quesadillas into eight. Villalobos commented that he saw similarities between All Dogs are Blue and Down the Rabbit Hole in terms of their tone and humour; I think there’s something in that, and I might add to that list the importance of the protagonists’ limited perspectives.
Villalobos said that the style of Quesadillas was meant to parody the rhetoric of politicians. He also talked about it being an ‘open’ book, all loose ends and a feeling of escape, in contrast with the more ‘closed’ Down the Rabbit Hole. I can see where he’s coming from with both of those points, but now I want to re-read the books to see what else I can find. And I’d say that an author event that leaves me wanting to revisit books that I’ve previously enjoyed is a very good event indeed. (Even better if it involves a chance to meet the author and get a book signed…)
Here’s another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.
Christopher Priest, The Adjacent (2013)
If there’s one thing you can be sure of with a Christopher Priest novel (and that’s quite an ‘if’), it is that the spaces between what is told will be at least as important as the tale itself. That was certainly true of 2011’s The Islanders, whose gazetteer-like structure left readers with a set of pieces from which multiple narratives could be constructed.
The Adjacent begins with photographer Tibor Tarent returning to what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain from a war zone where his partner Melanie, a doctor, was caught in the blast from an adjacency weapon, a device which annihilates everything within its triangular field. He has been summoned by the government, who are keen to learn what he knows of one Thijs Rietveld, the Dutch scientist who invented adjacency technology; Tarent insists he’s never heard of the man – though that assertion would seem to be contradicted by a later chapter. It transpires that an adjacency weapon has wiped out a large area of West London; so much for Rietveld’s certainty that his technology could never been used in aggression.
The novel returns to Tarent periodically, but also takes in the First and Second World Wars, and Priest’s own fictional world of the Dream Archipelago; in these times and places, we meet individuals who may be analogues of Tarent and Melanie (and perhaps other characters besides). We learn that adjacency technology works by shifting matter into an adjacent quantum universe – though it evidently does a lot more than that.
The characters of The Adjacent do not always feel fully rounded, which in turn has a detrimental effect on the power of the novel’s love story. But there is still much to enjoy here, in how Priest paints with realities that bleed into each other and fray at the edges. There’s a wonderful recurring image of flight as freedom, the Spitfire used not to make war, but to transcend it. This gives rise to a sequence towards novel’s end which is one of the most affecting passages of imaginative writing I have read in a long time. Priest casts the fantastic into shapes that no one else does, and The Adjacent is a fine demonstration.
Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, 2013
And Other Stories return to where they started with a second title from Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of the superb Down the Rabbit Hole. Quesadillas shares the earlier book’s wry wit and cutting absurdity. We meet Orestes, one of seven children (all named after characters from Greek mythology) living in the family home on a remote Mexican hill. Orestes would dearly love to escape, but his siblings seem to have better luck on that front than he does.
What makes the novel work so well for me is how the wider political and economic upheavals in the background are filtered through Orestes’ home life – so the quesadillas that his mother makes become more or less substantial as fortune allows; his household comes under pressure from the rich family who build a big house next door; and so on. As the pages turn, reality stretches further, until the family are literally defending their home. Add to this some sharp lines (‘Basically, all the rebels did was shout “Long live Christ the king!” and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century’, p. 22) and you have a book that’s very much worth reading.
John Williams, Stoner (1965)
The Vintage Classics edition of this novel really seems to have taken off in the UK these last few months; I wasn’t too surprised to see that it was the next choice for one of my book groups. It chronicles the life of one William Stoner, who is born into a Missouri farming family, but ends up a professor of literature. After his death, Stoner is not much remembered, let alone celebrated; John Williams then explores the quiet dramas that make up such an ‘ordinary’ life.
I feel ambivalent towards Stoner, and think Scott Pack has it about right. The novel has some very good aspects: I especially like Williams’s evocation of the grit and graft of the farm; and the running theme of domestic and professional spaces being used as the battlegrounds for control in Stoner’s life. But Williams gives his female characters short shrift (to put it mildly); and, for me, there’s too little sense of friction – Stoner lets life sweep him along to such a degree that I find it working against the emotion and drama. There are a few times when Stoner’s strength of conviction does come to the fore, and they are some of the book’s most compelling moments; but I wish they weren’t so few and far between.
A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2012)
This was my other book group’s latest choice; I liked it better than Stoner, but still have my reservations. I didn’t know much about A.M. Homes’s work beforehand, but I was anticipating a darkly humorous twist on the Great American Novel, which is pretty much what I got. What I’m unsure about is whether May We Be Forgiven subverts the archetype enough for my liking.
At the start of the novel. George Silver causes a fatal road crash and later smashes a beside lamp over his wife Jane’s head, killing her. He’s then sent away to a psychiatric institution, which leaves his brother Harry having to move in to look after George’s and Jane’s children. Harry’s wife Claire leaves him because he was having an affair with Jane – and so Harry’s run of misfortune continues, to a sometimes-absurd degree. There are certainly parts of May We Be Forgiven which I found amusing, such as the late of blooming of Harry’s ninety-year-old mother, who suddenly gets into dancing and all kinds of other activities. It often seems as though Harry is surrounded by people who are in command of the stories of their own lives, and the novel reveals how he tries to take control of his.
Looking back, I can’t quite put my finger on the reason I didn’t enjoy May We Be Forgiven More. I do know that the book group discussion made me feel like reading it again, to see what I’d missed. Maybe the time will be right, another day.
Peter Mattei, The Deep Whatsis (2013)
The spine of this novel reads: ‘The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is the bastard love-child of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Eric Nye is a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.” Well, I feel somewhere in between the two extremes towards him, so there.
Eric Nye is an ad agency’s ‘Chief Idea Officer’, who takes delight in his job of weeding out people to be fired; seemingly can’t look at a woman without objectifying her; and is about to find out that the pretty young intern with whom he’s just had a one night stand is not going away any time soon. So far, so unpleasant; and Nye stays that way for much of the book – but there is a relentless rhythm to his narration that keeps one going.
The novel’s satire of advertising and corporate culture feels a little too over-familiar truly to bite; but, further in, Nye’s subjectivity is challenged – there are hints that he may have done things he cannot remember – and this is what really captured my interest. Nye’s view of the world is all to him, so when its integrity is called into question, that hits him more than talk of morals or ethics ever could. Nye doesn’t quite become a reformed character, but he does start to change his mind; and his narration becomes a little less self-assured as a result. He’s not quite likeable, but we do start to see the person he could be. I’m struck by Mattei’s skilled control of language in The Deep Whatsis, and I’d certainly look forward to reading more of his work.
Andrew Kaufman, The Tiny Wife (2010)
Toiya Kristen Finley, The Legend of False Dreaming (2011)
Juan Pablo Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole (2010/1)
If you lost part of yourself, what would you become? What if you didn’t even know what you had to lose? Andrew Kaufman’s novella The Tiny Wife (now given a UK edition – a beautiful little hardback – by The Friday Project) begins with a bank robbery where the thief demands, not money, but that each person in the bank give him a possession of great sentimental value to them. By taking these items, the thief explains, he is also taking more than half of each person’s soul: ‘This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives,’ he warns, ‘learn how to grow them back, or you will die’ (p. 9).
Strange things do indeed happen to the victims of the theft. For example, one woman’s tattoo of a lion comes to life and chases her relentlessly. The bank’s assistant manager just has to imagine being underwater in his office, and it comes to be. Stacey Hinterland (whose husband David is our narrator) begins to shrink with strict quadratic progression; the very mathematics which has been one of Stacey’s touchstones for navigating life may now prove to be her undoing.
The Tiny Wife works as well as it does because there’s a matter-of-fact quality to its telling, which both provides an effective contrast to the fantastical happenings, and grounds them; what might have come across as overly whimsical instead becomes real, and carries the dramatic weight of a problem to be solved. The process of counteracting the effects of the theft is also one of overcoming whatever’s holding the victims back in their lives; we see several characters manage to do so (though others fail), and it’s affectingly done by Kaufman.
The characters in The Tiny Wife lost parts of their selves in a single event, but it’s the continual harshness of her life that has taken its toll on Rue, the protagonist of Toiya Kristen Finley’s The Legend of False Dreaming (published by Pendragon Press). In the midst of hitchhiking home, Rue (down to the last of her money, and with no wish to make payment in another way) is abandoned in Bronson, a run-down, worn-out town in the south of New York State where the locals are suspicious of outsiders and a strange fog keeps people from leaving. A boy named Mack is the only person to show any consideration towards Rue; buts he is suspicious of his intentions, and wants nothing more than to find her way home.
If there’s a lightness to the tone of The Tiny Wife (more in the way it’s told rather than what it tells), The Legend of False Dreaming is, in contrast, darker and dense with sensation. Finley conveys the atmosphere of Bronson through constant reference to the town’s sights, smells and tastes; the cumulative effect of these is to underline how hard it is to escape this place, how difficult to ignore where you are. For that’s the kind of place Bronson is: a once-prosperous industrial town that’s now going nowhere and has left its people with nowhere to go. This finds an echo in the life of Rue, who was trapped by the violent relationship she had with her father (still is trapped, in a way, by what that made her as a person), and now hopes to rescue her brother Bobby from their father’s violence.
As in The Tiny Wife, there are supernatural elements in Finley’s novella; and they, too, are treated matter-of-factly. But the effect is different: strangeness intrudes on the world of Kaufman’s book, and he makes it normal; the magic in The Legend of False Dreaming feels as though it’s already part of the book’s world, and is not wondered at because there’s no room left in that world for wonder. The fantastic elements of Finley’s tale represent Rue’s anger and Bronson’s secret shame; they add another layer to a very satisfying read.
There’s nothing fantastical in Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole (now given its first English-language publication as one of the launch titles from And Other Stories), but its protagonist is rather like a Wonderland inhabitant, in that he is trapped by the limitations of his own perspective, and is not even aware that those limitations exist. Young Tochtli is the son of a Mexican drug baron, who lives happily in his father Yolcaut’s palace, with his own private zoo, his tutor Maztazin, and a few other staff. The only people Tochtli knows are those who live in or visit the palace; what he wants most of all at the moment is a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus for hor his menagerie – and what Tochtli wants, he shall have.
Life in Yolcaut’s palace is, of course, all that Tochtli has ever known; this leads him to say things which come across to us as rather chilling, such as: ‘One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet’ (p. 8). But Tochtli’s narration is also bitterly poignant at times, when it shows up just how little he really knows. Take the opening of Down the Rabbit Hole, for instance:
Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. (p. 3).
Tochtli does indeed know those five words, and uses them repeatedly throughout the book. But, as the pages go by, it becomes less clear whether he really knows what they mean; they start to feel more like empty placeholders that emphasise the boy’s ignorance (I should add that Rosalind Harvey’s translation is excellent, really bringing the protagonist to life through his voice). There’s also an irony in Tochtli’s saying that he thinks he’s ‘precocious…in discovering secrets’ (p. 21), and his repeated assertion that ‘gangs are about not hiding things and about seeing the truth’ (p.47), because it’s quite clear from the events of the plot that Tochtli is wrong on both counts.
It takes some effort to reach Tochtli, because his subjectivity is so strong; there’s also a leap to be made between each of the book’s three chapters (the middle section, where Tochtli, Yolcaut, and Maztazin travel to Liberia under false names in search of a pygmy hippopotamus, is particularly striking; Tochtli never indicates directly who has taken on which name, and I was surprised at how effective this simple technique turned out to be at disorienting the reader). Yet it’s precisely this which makes Down the Rabbit Hole so rewarding; the book bodes well for both its author’s career, and its UK publisher’s future titles.