Tagbook review

A Silent Fury – Yuri Herrera

“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire (2018)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

It’s July, which means Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard from Caravana de recuerdos. Today I’m returning to Yuri Herrera, who wrote one of my very favourite novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World. His latest book is a non-fiction account of a tragedy that took place in his hometown of Pachuca, Mexico.

On 10 May 1920, there was a fire in the El Bordo mine. After a short period of evacuation, the authorities decided there was no possibility that anyone else trapped in the mine could have survived, and the shafts were sealed. When they were reopened, 87 bodies were removed from the mine, and seven other men found in there were still alive. The subsequent report exonerated the authorities of all blame, and even suggested that the miners might have been at fault.

Herrera’s project in this book is not so much about telling the story of the fire – though he does that in part, and it’s vivid and harrowing. He is most focused on the historical documents: the case file and newspaper reports. Herrera aims to show how the victims, survivors and their families have been obscured by the official record.

Sometimes this becomes evident because the record does not acknowledge that these are human lives which were lost. Sometimes it’s the contradictions which draw the investigators’ focus into question. Sometimes people were spoken for by others, such as the female relatives who had to give statements of their relationship to the deceased in order to apply for compensation. These statements mostly “appear only in the voice of some court clerk who interprets, edits, formalizes” – and they all had to be witnessed by a man.

The English title A Silent Fury is well chosen. It appears in the text when Herrera is describing an official photograph of the survivors:

They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.

The “silent fury” is then the kind of reaction that doesn’t appear in the official record, at least not without an act of recovery like this book. It’s also there in Herrera’s writing, a controlled anger verging on sarcasm, which is one of the powerful qualities of Lisa Dillman’s translation.

In some ways, A Silent Fury reminds me of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in that both books confront the question of how to put a human disaster into words, and the implications of doing so. The resulting work brings the victims of the El Bordo fire into focus, allows them to be seen.

Published by And Other Stories.

Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits

Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.

Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)

In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing. ⁣

A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently. ⁣

The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book. ⁣

Published by Gallic Books.

Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)

For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.⁣⁣

In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection. ⁣⁣

The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different. ⁣⁣

Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about. ⁣⁣

Published by Tilted Axis Press.

Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)

In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community. ⁣

Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police. ⁣

So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way. ⁣

Published by MacLehose Press.

Three reviews: İşigüzel, Nors, Glaister

A trio of short reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Şebnem İşigüzel , The Girl in the Tree (2016)
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers (2020)

The narrator of this novel is about to turn 18 when she decides she’s had enough. She climbs the tallest tree in an Istanbul park, and determines to stay there. The text we read is her account of her past, present and future. ⁣

It’s the voice that strikes me most of all: a smart, articulate voice that loops back and forth between stories, able to command a world within the tree even as she’s trying to make sense of the world below. The girl’s reasons for wanting to escape her life gradually become clear, encompassing events in her family and broader violence. This is a poignant, engaging and ultimately hopeful book.

Published by AmazonCrossing.

Dorthe Nors, Wild Swims (2018)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

I knew from reading Dorthe Nors’ previous collection, Karate Chop, that her stories tended towards character studies with a dark streak. So, when I saw there was a story called ‘Hygge’ in this new collection, I suspected that it wouldn’t be as cosy or convivial as the title suggested. ⁣

‘Hygge’ is narrated by a retired professor who views himself as something of a silver fox. He treats the attention of the ladies at the senior club with an air of bored amusement. At the moment he’s with Lilly, they’ve just had an argument, and she would like that to be put behind them. The narrator is reminded of his old Aunt Clara and his students in the 1970s – for different reasons, neither of them good. The ending is truly chilling.⁣

Elsewhere in Wild Swims, we find ‘The Fairground’, in which a woman compares the idealised version of love she imagined in childhood with the disappointing reality she has experienced as an adult, with an abandoned fairground serving as a metaphor for the difference. The protagonist of ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ keeps herself busy helping out a terminally ill friend, but there’s a sense that she is also propping herself up. In ‘By Syndvest Station’, two friends collecting for charity encounter an old woman in deep poverty and distress – one is shaken, but the other has something else on her mind. It’s another fine collection of stories from Nors.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Lesley Glaister, Blasted Things (2020)

Every novel of Lesley Glaister’s that I’ve read – this is the third – has been atmospheric, Blasted Things perhaps most of all. ⁣

In 1917, Clementine is a nurse on the Western Front. She is about to elope with Powell, a Canadian medic, when he is blown up. Clem is reluctantly forced to return to life with Dennis (a doctor who stayed behind to treat people in the UK), which is where we find her again in 1920.⁣

A chance encounter leads Clem to meet Vincent, whose face was partially destroyed in war. He reminds her of Powell, and she falls for his well-spoken charm. But Vincent is really a grifter, who’s out to see what he can get from Clem. ⁣

There’s some really effective writing in Blasted Things such as when Glaister breaks up her usual style to convey the disorientation of wartime. I also found it a gripping story – you just sense that the tale of Clem and Vincent will not end well, but exactly how it plays out is another matter.

Published by Sandstone Press.

Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas

“What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?”

Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds (1957)
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

Cover of The Birds, novel by Tarjei Vesaas

Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the stand-out books I read a couple of years ago, so it was a pleasure to read another of his novels and find it similarly affecting.

Our viewpoint character this time is 37-year-old Mattis, who lives with his older sister Hege in a cottage by the lake. The locals call him ‘Simple Simon’, and he doesn’t have much luck – either with getting women to notice him, or finding work. At one point, we see him join in with thinning out the rows of turnips on a local farm, but he simply can’t keep up.

There’s always the possibility that things will change, though. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mattis sees a woodcock fly directly over the house. He’s never seen one do that before. Mattis’s world is reordered: “It seemed to be a different house now, you had to look at it with different eyes.” He is eager to tell Hege what’s happened, but her reaction is a weary, “go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”

This is the way life tends to go for Mattis: things that mean so much to him leave others indifferent, and he can’t understand why. As readers, we can share his delight and frustration, but we can also see how difficult Hege has found it living with him – even though she doesn’t want to let it show.

***

There are a couple of chapters in the middle of The Birds that I think will go down as one of my favourite sequences in fiction. Mattis has been out in his boat and become stranded. He is found by a couple of holidaying girls, Anna and Inger, who take him back to shore. I was stunned by the range of emotions covered with such subtlety in these scenes. You see so much all at once.

Mattis is innocently overjoyed that finally some girls have paid attention to him. What’s more, they don’t know him, so he can revel in the freedom of being someone else. At the same time, his wandering eye and emotional intensity make Anna and Inger uncomfortable. But they also feel it would be wrong to leave him there. The sense is that they know on one level that Mattis means no harm, but on another they are instinctively wary of him. Vesaas makes clear that all these emotional contradictions are bound up together, and the tension between them helps give these scenes their power.

***

Mattis later tries to earn a living as a ferryman, but ends up with only one passenger: Jørgen, a lumberjack. Jørgen needs a bed for the night, so Mattis invites him back to the cottage – and there the lumberjack stays, because Hege falls in love with him. Now the balance of Mattis’s life is upended, and he has to work out his place in the world anew.

The touchstones of Mattis’s world – small events in nature, Hege and her constant knitting – are not those of other people. This is what makes it so difficult for him to relate to others, and them to him. But there are still times when he wants to ask the big questions – “Why are things the way they are?” – if someone would only listen. Vesaas depicts Mattis and his life with piercing clarity.

The Birds is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics (in association with Peter Owen Publishers), and in the US by Archipelago Books.

Kaleidoscopes and building blocks: two novels by Gabriel Josipovici

I first came across Gabriel Josipovici’s name from blogs such as This Space. I read some of his critical work, and was particularly taken with his idea of art as a toy. Broadly speaking, I understand this to mean art that keeps its component parts in view, in the same way that a hobby horse can still obviously be a stick. Then we can take those component parts and make our own experience with them.

This idea struck a chord with me because it seemed to me that many of my favourite books worked that way. Well, now I’ve read a couple of Josipovici’s novels, and discovered that they work that way as well…

***

Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) is the account of an Italian composer, one Tancredo Pavone (inspired by the real-life figure Giacinto Scelsi), whose words are related by his manservant Massimo in interview. Pavone comes across as an absurd, pompous figure in many ways, with his vast collection of clothes that may be worn only minimally, and his strident opinions (“German composers have been so busy airing their souls, he said, that they forgot to air their clothes”).

But there’s something else in there: Pavone argues for a more primal sort of art than what he sees (or hears) around him. He sees music as “a vehicle for the body to express itself.” Pavone goes on: “The language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row…it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing.” I can understand this by instinct: why I think about the art that I’ve responded to most strongly (books especially, but not only), it was a response that went through my whole body – a sense of being more intensely alive.

The most powerful aspect of Infinity for me is that it’s structured in a way that brings out the same feeling. Pavone’s personality fills the book, larger than life, but his vulnerability starts to show as time goes on. By the end, Massimo is telling of the period after Pavone had a stroke, shoring the composer up, giving him a voice in a way that Pavone himself couldn’t by then. The composer’s intense engagement with existence is what most stands out , and the circuitous way that Massimo tells Pavone’s tale creates a space which allows us to experience that intensity. To bring in a toy metaphor, Infinity is something of a kaleidoscope, turning to reveal different aspects of its subject’s world.

***

If Infinity is a kaleidoscope, The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) is a set of building blocks. It begins with the unnamed protagonist, a translator, describing his daily routine as a single man in Paris. After three pages, another voice interjects, that of his second wife – and suddenly we’re in Wales, where the couple are entertaining friends in their converted farmhouse.

There’s something quite startling about the way this is done: sketching his Parisian life vividly, then pulling us out of it into a vivid new life. The novel continues, sliding between Wales, Paris, and an earlier stage of the translator’s life, with his first wife in London. The rhythm of these switches is always uneven – it’s not something we’re allowed to take for granted.

Something that I found intriguing early on was the way Josipovici makes the very idea of there being different stages in one life seem strange – it just feels so improbable that the single man in Paris might become the married man bickering with his wife in Wales, for example. But then the novel goes further: “One sprouts so many selves,” comments the protagonist. There are glimpses of contradictory pasts and futures, some much darker than others.

The Cemetery in Barnes put me in mind of a rather different novel, Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981). Priest’s novel has two versions of the same character, one living in what looks like the real world, and one in what looks like a fantasy world – but neither life has more reality than the other, so both have equal weight. Similarly, the question arises in Cemetery: are we reading about one imaginary life or many? The reader can choose which blocks to use to build meaning, but ultimately any meaning only lasts until the book is closed.

***

Infinity and The Cemetery in Barnes are both published by Carcanet.

Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour: If All the World and Love were Young by Stephen Sexton

Today is my second post on the blog tour for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize longlistl. I’m looking at the debut collection by Northern Irish poet Stephen Sexton, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

If All the World and Love were Young begins with a note in which Sexton describes a photo that his mother took of his nine-year-old self playing Super Mario World: the garden to his left, the television with the game to his right – the boy himself poised between reality and gameworld.

Sexton’s collection is a poetic tour of the levels of Super Mario World, infused with reflections on grief at the loss of his mother. The iconography of the game twists into memory:

[…]the questions floating in the air

are for a future self to voice decades from now who will return

again and again to this room and these moments of watershed.

Yoshi’s Island 1

The poet writes about his mother’s illness, her time in hospital, and remembering her. All the way through, the fantasy world of the game is something of an escape, but ultimately it’s so bound up with reality in the poems that it becomes a way to process what’s happening in life.

Towards the end of the book, Sexton catches imagined glimpses of his mother:

Every other day I think I see her passing by the window

or crossing a bridge or walking ahead of me in the village

but this is the wrong universe among all the universes.

Way Cool

Moments like these are when the collection is at its most poignant: when the cold light of reality cuts through.

Patience by Toby Litt

“Please be patient with me,” says Elliott at the start of Toby Litt’s novel Patience. Elliott is a disabled boy living in a Catholic orphanage in 1979. He is largely unable to move or speak, but his inner voice is richly expressive. I was reminded of Gerald Murnane’s writing at times, not just with the long, winding sentences, but also the way that Elliott’s imagination opens up patterns in the world.

For example, here he is watching a greenfinch:

…the green vision danced and fretted and eagered and preened in front of me I could not believe who could believe that I deserved so many feathers that overlapped in such a succinct way and that slid over one another in greens that were doorways to shy sly gardens of other greens that tree green had only hinted at.

Litt asks his readers to experience the world at Elliott’s pace, but the depth that’s revealed in doing so makes Patience a rewarding book. Elliott’s burgeoning friendship with a new boy, Jim, is a delight to read about.

#InternationalBooker2020: Melchor, Kehlmann, Azar

A selection of titles from the International Booker Prize longlist

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2020)

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.

Set in a Mexican village, Melchor’s book begins with the murder of a woman known as “the Witch”, whose house is rumoured to hide a stash of treasure. Subsequent chapters unpeel the events that led to the killing, and show the dark realities of life in this community.

It’s a powerful translation by Sophie Hughes, and a novel that’s not soon forgotten.

Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll (2017)
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (2020)

Tyll Ulenspiegel, the main character of this novel, is based on a trickster figure from medieval German folklore. Kehlmann brings him forward in time to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Tyll escapes the childhood village where his father is accused of witchcraft, and as an adult becomes a travelling entertainer and court jester.

Kehlmann’s novel is at its best when Tyll is at centre-stage, the prankster who breaks through the superstitions and mores of his society. When he isn’t front and centre… well, it probably helps to know about the historical background. Overall, though, Tyll is engaging and enjoyable. ⁣

Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (2017)
Translated from the Persian by an anonymous translator

Following the 1979 Revolution, Bahar’s family were forced to flee Tehran for the small village of Razan, seeking to maintain their intellectual freedom, and at least some sort of continuity in life.

But the authorities catch up with them eventually. As the novel begins in 1988, Bahar’s mother has climbed a greengage tree and apparently attained enlightenment. At the same time, Bahar’s brother has been executed elsewhere. Brightness and brutality are intermingled in the text. ⁣

Azar’s novel is full of stories within stories, and the supernatural is never far away (even Bahar, our narrator, is a ghost). It’s compelling to read, delightful and powerful in equal measure.⁣

Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour: Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Welcome to my first stop on the longlist blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize. The book I’m looking at today is Flèche, the debut collection by Hong Kong-born poet Mary Jean Chan, a collection that won the Costa Poetry Award.

‘Flèche’ is the French word for ‘arrow’, but it’s also the name of a technique in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a young adult. “As a teenager, fencing was the closest thing / I knew to desire,” writes Chan in ‘Practice’, and fencing becomes one of the metaphors she uses to explore the assertion of her identity. In the poem ‘Flèche’:

The day I learnt to lunge, I began to walk differently, saw distance as a kind of desire. Once, my blade’s tip gently flicked her wrist: she said it was the perfect move.

One of the collection’s main themes is the poet’s relationship with her mother. ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ describes an idealised coming out: “You sieved my tears, added / an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” The reality that Chan presents in the book doesn’t go so smoothly. In ‘Always’, she writes that her mother is “always where I begin…Always the lips wishing / they could kiss those mouths / you would approve of.”

But perhaps the main theme of Flèche is love — romantic and familial love alike. Here’s an example from ‘an eternal &’:

look I say to you / listen watch / how we can make it through another day / on this shore / of lifetimes / we’ll have this ocean / an eternal &

There’s a restless power to Flèche that makes it a memorable collection, well worth a read.

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