TagDaniel Kehlmann

#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.⁣

IFFP 2015: Kehlmann and Murakami

KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann, F (2013)
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway (2014)

I keep wanting to call F a family saga in reverse; but that description, though snappy, isn’t quite right. Let’s say that F is a novel about several generations of a family, which highlights that we approach family history by working backwards, and thereby have to piece everything together to make sense of it.

We begin in 1984, when the Friedland brothers go with their father Arthur to a hypnotism show. The hypnotist tells Arthur it’s time to make the change in life that he always wanted; next thing the boys know, their father has gone away, taking his passport. They won’t see Arthur again for years – but in the meantime, he will become an internationally famous author. The bulk of the novel follows the brothers in adulthood: Martin, the priest; Eric, the financier; Ivan, the painter – each fundamentally a fraud in his chosen profession. Their stories overlap, but in reverse chronological order; so the causes of certain events become clear only gradually, and we see the contrasting ways in which the Friedland brothers view each other.

In another section, Arthur gallops back through the generations of his family, a survey of centuries that serves to illustrate how little he ultimately knows. The final chapters of F focus on Eric’s daughter, and tie up a few loose ends – for the reader, of course; Kehlmann’s choice of viewpoint character reminds us that, as a new generation emerges, the stories of the old one recede into mystery.

Carol Brown Janeway’s translation effectively facilitates F’s movement through different tones: from social realism to humour to gothic nightmare and beyond. I knew nothing about Daniel Kehlmann’s work before starting F; now I want to read everything I can that he’s written, and I would be very happy to see this novel on the IFFP shortlist.

Murakami

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014)
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

So, time for my second encounter with the work of Haruki Murakami. I had a hunch that the IFFP would bring this, and felt both intrigued and apprehensive at the prospect. The first Murakami I read, Sputnik Sweetheart a couple of years ago, didn’t leave much of an impression. I have wondered whether he’s the kind of author for whom you need to have ‘caught the bug’ at the right time (as can be the way with such prolific writers). Obviously I’d need to read more to find that out, but going straight to an author’s latest book is not necessarily the best way. Still, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the book on the table for the IFFP, and I like it better than Sputnik Sweetheart – albeit not  quite enough to send me off to read all his work.

Tsukuru Tazaki is 36, designs train stations for a living, and is drifting aimlessly through life. At high school, he was part of a close-knit quintet of friends – though he felt an outlier, simply because he was only one without a colour in his name. Then, one day, they asked him not to contact them any more – and Tsukuru never quite got over it. Now he’s seeing a woman, Sara, who convinces him it’s time to track down his old friends and find out why they cut him off.

It took me a while to warm to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – at the beginning, it seemed that barely a page went by without an overwrought simile – but my interest began to be perked when Tsukuru’s search got underway. Tsukuru is someone who makes things (that’s even what his name means), and the way he works through his problem is both kinetic (going to visit his friends once he finds out where they are) and rooted in physicality (one of the novel’s key metaphors is how much Tsukuru and friends have changed over the years, perhaps without realising). I think that sense was what ultimately made Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki work for me. If I were more familiar with Murakami’s work, I might have picked up on more, but there it is. I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about the prospect of the book making the IFFP shortlist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

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