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Document 1 – François Blais

In the years since I started reading and reviewing more books in translation, one of the nice things has been the chance to talk to translators on social media. This has given me a greater appreciation of the work that goes into translation, and made me more attentive to the language of fiction in general.

One of the translators I’m in touch with on social media is JC Sutcliffe, who translates from French. Recently, she asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a couple of books she had translated, which were published by Book*hug in Canada. I’m not that familiar with fiction from Quebec, and I liked the sound of both novels, so I said yes.

The title I’m looking at today is Document 1 by François Blais; he’s written nine novels, but this is his first to appear in English. At the start, we’re introduced to a pair of amiable slackers: Tess and her partner Jude (those names are referencing Thomas Hardy, but as I’ve not read him I can’t explore that). From their home in Grand-Mère, the couple travel the world – via Google Earth and a flick of the mouse, that is:

We jump the four hundred kilometres separating Minnesota’s metropolis from Des Moines, Iowa. We’d better see what the buzz is down here. Fly low over Grand View University. Not much going on, it’s all very peaceful, but let’s just note in passing that the Des Moines fire hydrants are yellow. Another crucial piece of information to take up storage space in our brains. There’s not much happening on Euclid Avenue either, even though it seems to be one of the town’s major commercial streets. Lots of vehicles (trucks in particular), but no pedestrians: apparently strolling is not the done thing in Des Moines…

One day, against their usual instincts, the couple decide to go on a road trip, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania (they like places with unusual names, and it’s not too far to travel). The problem is, they don’t have a car, or indeed enough money to fund the journey. Eventually, they hit on an idea: to apply for a government arts grant that would fund a book of the road trip. Tess and Jude find a local writer, Sébastien Daoust, to lend his name to the grant application; the resulting text is the novel we’re reading (though it’s Tess who has ‘written’ it, with a very little help from Jude).

In case you’re wondering, the title of Document 1 comes from the default name of the Word file that Tess creates for the text. She says at one point:

Dear reader, as you have in your hands the finished product, with a beautiful cover, a beautiful ISBN number, and gushing thanks to the Arts Council, you must already know the title we chose. Admit it, it’s a pretty impressive title! I have no idea what it will be, but I know we’ll find something spectacular. I have faith in us.

And you can see how well that went…

I don’t always care for this kind of metafictional humour, but Blais gets it spot on for me. Tess has picked up a couple of ‘rules of writing’ books and keeps pointing out for our benefit the techniques she’s used in her text – techniques not necessarily used with much care or sensitivity (a random flashback resolved several chapters later, for example). Blais has managed to balance it so that he writes with a tin ear in places, yet this still works well in context, without coming across as making fun of his narrator – and Sutcliffe captures all that in her translation. When I write it out like that, it sounds onerous; but it reads so lightly.

Stu has also reviewed Document 1 over at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and he too is impressed with the novel’s dry wit. I hope we will see more of Blais’ work in translation, because this is a fine introduction.

Book details

Document 1 (2016) by François Blais, tr. JC Sutcliffe (2018), Book*hug, 172 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Four Devils – Herman Bang

Today’s book is one of the launch titles in Very Short Classics, an occasional ebook series from the people behind Abandoned Bookshop. Herman Bang (1857-1912) is a renowned name in Danish literature, but not widely translated into English. The Four Devils was originally published in 1890; this translation, by Marie Ottilie Heyl, dates from 1927.

As children, the brothers Fritz and Adolf were taken in by the circus; along with sisters Aimée and Louise, they became the Four Devils, talented trapeze artists. Aimée is in love with Fritz, but he has eyes for a rich married woman in the audience. Fritz waits for her after the performance each night; eventually, the woman notices and speaks to him, and everything unravels from there…

What makes The Four Devils such a pleasure to read is the intensity of Bang’s prose. As befits a story about trapeze artists, everything is refracted through the lens of movement and the body; here, for example, is Fritz regarding the rich woman in the circus’s stables, where he works as groom:

It was all for his benefit – ah, he knew it well; through 1000 little gestures – the straightening of her back, the movement of her arm, the glance of her eye, she showed that they were destined for one another. They seemed actually to touch, though each took care to keep the distance that separated them. In spite of it, they felt close to each other; it was as if some indescribable impulse had caught them in a double coil that held them both bound.

I found The Four Devils a fine introduction to the work of Herman Bang, and I’ll be looking out for more.

Book details

The Four Devils (1890) by Herman Bang, tr. Marie Ottilie Heyl (1927), Very Short Classics, 53 pages, ebook (source: personal copy).

The Four Devils is available on Kindle and Kobo for 99p. Read another review by Grant at 1streading’s Blog.

Zero Hours – Neil Campbell

Zero Hours is Neil Campbell’s second novel, the sequel to 2016’s Sky Hooks (which I haven’t read, though the new book mostly stands alone). As its title suggests, this is a novel about work:

Try doing some of this zero hours shit. If you’re off sick then drag your arse in because you won’t be getting sick pay, you’ve got no rights whatsoever. Day after day you phone in asking for work. Day after day you sign in at the desk, just another face from the agency. On the phone, they used to call you for work. Now you have to call them. Time after time it’s engaged.

Campbell’s narrator is a young working-class man from Manchester. Throughout the novel he works a number of zero hours jobs, first at a mail-sorting depot, later at a number of libraries. There is nearly always something to dishearten our man, be it his duties, colleagues, managers, or just the constant uncertainty that comes with this kind of employment. Besides work, the narrator has a number of unsuccessful attempts at relationships, and sees the face of his city change, losing its character to gentrification. There’s a stop-start feel to reading the novel itself: as with zero hours work, the present moment is all, and even the immediate future uncertain.

Alongside his ‘day job’, the protagonist is a writer, active in the local literary scene and with a number of books published. This comes across as the glue holding the man’s life together, a source of continuity in contrast to pretty much everything else happening in his world. Sometimes reading Zero Hours feels like eavesdropping; at other times, it’s like being confided in. It makes one hope that, by novel’s end, there will be some light on the horizon.

Book details

Zero Hours (2018) by Neil Campbell, Salt Publishing, 138 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Read my review of Neil Campbell’s chapbook ‘Jackdaws’ (Nightjar Press) here.

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena

Today I’m looking at a book from Latvia, the first title in Peirene‘s ‘Home in Exile’ series for 2018. Two unnamed first-person narrators alternate: a mother and daughter. The mother is born in Riga in 1944 and becomes a talented doctor, offered a position to study in Leningrad. She gives birth to a daughter in 1969, but struggles with the prospect of being a mother: she disappears for five days immediately following the birth, and remains distant from her daughter, who is brought up mostly by her grandmother and step-grandfather.
All this changes, however, at the turn of 1977/8, when the mother has a run-in with the Soviet bureaucracy which ends with her being sent to run an ambulatory station in the Latvian countryside. She takes her daughter to live with her, hoping to grow closer to her – but depression continues to overshadow the mother’s life. There’s a stark quality to Nora Ikstena’s prose (in Margita Gailitis’ translation) that really heightens the intensity of her subject matter.
Milk is a recurring motif throughout the book: for example, the mother fears that she will poison her daughter if she breastfeeds, and the girl grows to be lactose intolerant. This works effectively as a metaphor for the troubled mother-daughter relationship at the novel’s heart, but also as a metaphor for the relationship between Latvia and the Soviet Union. The mother longs for Latvia to gain its independence, while the daughter starts to learn about Latvian culture at a clandestine after-school group. As the novel approaches its end in 1989, change is on the horizon, but the way for the two protagonists to reach there remains uncertain.
Soviet Milk is a fine example of a human story that refracts to illuminate a wider picture, and works well at both the small and large scales. I’ll be looking out for more of Ikstena’s work in translation in the future.

Book details

Soviet Milk (2015) by Nora Ikstena, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018), Peirene Press, 192 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Dinner Guest – Gabriela Ybarra (#MBI2018)

The opening of Gabriela Ybarra’s debut novel (longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize) explains its title:

The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.

The first to vanish was my grandfather.

[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

The novel narrates and juxtaposes two deaths in the author’s family; a prefatory note suggests that this is Ybarra’s way of trying to come to terms with what happened.

The first part of The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s grandfather Javier, a Basque politician who was kidnapped by separatists in 1977 (six years before the author was born), then killed after a month of unsuccessful negotiations. The second section mostly concerns the death from cancer of Ybarra’s mother. There lies the contrast at the novel’s heart: on the one hand, public events which are told at a certain remove; on the other, a more private, intimate loss.

There are some poignant moments as Ybarra depicts her mother’s decline, but the novel is also striking when she brings the different strands together. For example, Ybarra searches the internet for images of the man who sent her father a package bomb in 2002, and finds herself experiencing a particular that she can’t quite pin down:

Looking at pictures of him, I feel the same way I do when I look at images of cancer cells. I don’t think about the threat, but about the story conjured up. The images of the tumours look like galaxies, and when I look at them, I tell myself stories about space.

It’s that impulse, to make stories out of what could be seen as threatening, which drives the form of this novel. The intersection of those different stories is intriguing.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

The Dinner Guest (2015) by Gabriela Ybarra, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2018), Harvill Secker, 160 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi (#MBI2018)

Frankenstein in Baghdad is Ahmed Saadawi’s third novel (although, as far as I can tell, the first to be translated into English). It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, making Saadawi the first Iraqi writer to win the award. If I’m honest, though, my attention was caught by the title alone.

The setting is US-occupied Baghdad. We are quickly introduced to a number of memorable characters, including Elishva, an old woman believed to have special powers, who still longs for her son Daniel to return from the Iran-Iraq war; Hadi, an old junk-seller and teller of tall tales; and Mahmoud, an ambitious magazine journalist. In the first few chapters especially, the view of events overlaps as we go from character to character, so already we get a sense of shifting, unstable reality.

This is a place where danger and violence can erupt without warning:

When he was twenty yards past the gate, Hadi saw the garbage truck race past him toward the gate, almost knocking him over. A few moments later it exploded. Hadi,together with his sack and his dinner, was lifted off the ground. With the dust and dirt and blast of the explosion, he sailed through the air, turned a somersault, and landed hard on the asphalt.

Hadi has been collecting body parts and stitching them together, hoping that the government will give the pieces a proper burial if they’re part of a complete corpse. The corpse, however, has other ideas. The soul of a hotel guard killed by that exploding garbage truck finds a resting place in Hadi’s creation, and it only takes an inadvertent wish from Elishva to animate the body… and soon she thinks Daniel has returned.

But then the corpse – soon to be dubbed “the Whatsitsname” – disappears, and gains a gruesome purpose. He is driven to kill those responsible for the deaths of his individual parts. But, whenever the Whatsitsname kills such a person, his corresponding body part disintegrates – and so needs to be replaced, leading to another urge to kill, and so on, and so on. The Whatsitsname becomes a walking cycle of killing for its own sake. This becomes a powerful metaphor for life in the besieged city. It grows even more grimly absurd when the Whatsitsname attracts his own acolytes willing to assist his cause, so ending up at the centre of a cult-of-sorts.

But… what if it’s all not real? Saadawi builds enough trapdoors into his novel that the whole business of the Whatsitsname could be false. The Whatsitsname purportedly tells his story on a digital voice recorder provided by Mahmoud, via Hadi – at two or more removes, in other words, with one of those being a notorious liar. Furthermore, the whole book is presented as a text written by an unidentified author and found by a shady government department. The effect of all this is not so much to undermine the Whatsitsname as to reinforce the notion that he’s not needed – all the absurdity, the random killing, can and does go on anyway.

Jonathan Wright’s translation is measured in tone, making the supernatural grounded and everyday horrors all the more shocking. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein in Baghdad, and it will be my benchmark as I go through the Man Booker International longlist.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi, tr. Jonathan Wright (2018), Oneworld, 272 pages, paperback (proof copy provided for review).

You Have Me to Love – Jaap Robben: a review for #BoekenweekUK

Welcome to the final stop on World Editions’ blog tour for Boekenweek, celebrating Dutch literature. Today I’m reviewing You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty). Robben is a poet, playwright and children’s author; Birk (to use the title of the Dutch version) is his first novel for adults. It won the 2014 Dutch Booksellers Away and the Dioraphte Prize. Having read the book, it’s not hard to see why.

Our narrator is young Mikael Hammermann, who lives with his parents, Dora and Birk, on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway. There are only three houses on the island, and one of those is empty. Groceries arrive by boat every two weeks; Mikael is home-schooled, at least enough to do well in the tests that are sent to him periodically (and which he is allowed to complete in pencil, so they can be corrected before returning). Robben never places the island in a true geographical context, so throughout there’s a sense of dislocation which really comes into its own as the novel progresses.

The Hammermanns’ world is upended when, one day, Birk vanishes into the sea. The search for him yields nothing, though Mikael begins to see a tiny version of his father about the house – that is, until he’s forced to confront and reveal the full circumstances of Birk’s disappearance.

The rest of the novel chronicles life without Birk for mother and son. Dora’s attitude switches from blaming Mikael to something that he can’t quite read: for example, at one point Mikael’s mother announces abruptly that they’re going to swap bedrooms, ostensibly because he’s growing up and needs the bigger bed – but it still seems a strange thing to him. For his part, Mikael starts to help out the Hammermanns’ neighbour, Karl, with his fishing boat; though Dora is not keen, perhaps from a sense of possessiveness (for whom, is an open question). Mikael also attempts secretly to raise a gull chick in the island’s empty house, which is perhaps his way of proving himself to himself.

Jaap Robben

You Have Me to Love has a number of emotional turns that I wasn’t expecting – it’s really quite affecting. If you’d like a taste of the writing, Anne posted an extract from Doherty’s translation at Random Things Through My Letterbox yesterday. There’s also an animated short based on the book, which you can see here.

Book details

You Have Me to Love (2014) by Jaap Robben, tr. David Doherty (2016), World Editions, 256 pages, paperback (review copy).

Mothers – Chris Power: a Splice review

Today’s review is about an excellent short story collection, but first I want to introduce the venue. Splice is a new review site and small press set up by Daniel Davis Wood. It has been online only a couple of weeks, but I think it’s already establishing a distinctive and interesting approach. Each week, the site focuses on a single title: a review is published on Monday, followed by a feature or extract on Wednesday, and a round-up of related links on Friday.

This week’s book is Mothers, the debut collection from Chris Power, who writes the Guardian’s ‘brief survey of the short story‘ series. I’ve written the Monday review of Mothers, and I found it a fascinating book to read and think about.

Mothers is a collection of ten stories, mostly featuring characters who are lost in some way, often at moments of great change in their lives. Three of the stories concern the same character, Eva, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she becomes a mother herself. Mothers is also particularly cohesive as a collection – not that the stories are linked as such, but they cast light and shade on each other in a way that’s quite remarkable to experience.

Some links:

Mothers is published in the UK on 1 March by Faber & Faber.

Book details

Mothers (2018) by Chris Power, Faber & Faber, 304 pages, hardback (review copy).

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village of Vinje, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram.

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation.

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation.

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave.

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes.

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story.

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men] bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good.

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy).

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

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