The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov: a European Literature Network review

Bickford FuseI have a new review up at the European Literature Network this month: Andrey Kurkov’s The Bickford Fuse (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk). It’s a journey through an absurd, askew version of the USSR under Khrushchev. We follow a shipwrecked sailor as he wanders the land through a series of strange encounters, all the while trailing the safety fuse with which he could blow it all up.

I enjoyed The Bickford Fuse, and the way it creates its own little world. Read my review to find out more.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Bickford Fuse (2009) by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Dralyuk (2016), MacLehose Press paperback

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

LastDaysofSummerThis debut novel came along at the right time to be the kind of refresher that I was looking for. It’s July in Texas: jasper Curtis is released from prison after ten years, to move in with his sister Lizzie and her two daughters. Jasper is an interloper, in his family and the outside world: we don’t know exactly what he did to end up in prison; Lizzie doesn’t know whether she’s about to find her brother or a criminal; Jasper’s nieces don’t know him at all.

What I particularly like about Vanessa Ronan’s book is the way she builds up a sense of menace through her prose. Here, for example, is Lizzie overhearing an approaching truck:

Rumbling sound of the engine low as thunder and as distant, but uninterrupted and now quickly coming closer, growing louder, faster than any storm. Cobalt blue. Bright, shiny, new. Puts her rusted Chevy parked out front to shame. Lizzie turns the faucet off. Dries her hands on a dish towel. Places it, crumpled, on the counter beside her.

It’s the jagged rhythms of long and short sentences that makes this passage work for me; the fragments of action, colour and image. It disturbs the sense of a coherent, easily understood world – paving the way for the darker events to come.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Last Days of Summer (2016) by Vanessa Ronan, Penguin Ireland paperback

Back to the beginning: a few thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

VoyageOutI haven’t had a lot of time lately for blogging (or, at times, reading), so I’ve had to scale back some of the plans that I had. But I do want to sketch out a few notes on my second #Woolfalong book. The theme for phase two (which covers March and April, so I’m still in time… just!) is ‘beginnings and endings’ – Woolf’s first or last book. After reading Mrs Dalloway, I decided that I wanted to go back to the beginning and Woolf’s 1915 debut, The Voyage Out.

It’s interesting to compare the two. Stylistically, The Voyage Out is much more conventional; but I still notice seeds of what I found in the later novel. For example, there’s something of Mrs Dalloway’s shifting web of consciousness: The Voyage Out is ostensibly the story of Rachel Vinrace, a young woman on the journey to South America that will be her rite of passage. But the novel is larger than her viewpoint: it starts and ends with other characters, and there are familiarly abrupt transitions between perspectives.

Clarissa Dalloway herself even makes an appearance towards the beginning of The Voyage Out. But it was particularly interesting for me to contemplate a parallel – suggested by Lorna Sage in her introduction to the edition I was reading – between the characters of Rachel Vinrace and Mrs Dalloway’s Septimus Smith. Thinking about the endings of each book, I guess those two characters could be seen as interruptions into a safe and ordered (one might say complacent) world. I suspect this won’t be the last time I find that happening, as I read more of Woolf’s work.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Voyage Out (1915) by VIrginia Woolf, Oxford World’s Classics paperback

A world without centre: Nocilla Dream

Nocilla DreamThe author bio tells me that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s ‘Nocilla Trilogy’ (of which 2006’s Nocilla Drream is the first volume) was instrumental in bringing about an aesthetic shift in contemporary Spanish writing. Now we get to read Nocilla Dream in English, courtesy of translator Thomas Bunstead and Fitzcarraldo Editions; and you can see why this novel must have shaken things up. Nocilla Dream has a teeming cast of characters, with hints at a web of hidden connections – and that’s where the similarity with a conventional plot-driven novel ends.

Each of Nocilla Dream’s 113 chapters consists of a single paragraph, from a few pages down to a few lines. Some are extracts from other books; some come from New York Times articles; others are snapshots from the lives of various characters. Amongst others, we’ll read about Falconetti, an ex-soldier who left San Francisco with the idea of circumnavigating the globe from west to east; Pat Garrett, who wanders around carrying a suitcase of found photographs; and a community of surfers in south-east China, with its roots in a group of North American expatriates. Many of the novel’s events revolve around U.S. Route 50, with one recurring image being a poplar tree from whose branches people have hung shoes. Trees in general are a common metaphor throughout the novel, particularly in terms of the idea that branching networks underpin reality.

I’m going to quote an extended passage which illustrates various aspects of Fernández Mallo’s approach. Here is Chii-Teen, a Chinese character, looking through some old newspaper cuttings:

On the reverse of one of the cuttings, he’s come across a picture of an elderly painter, clearly from the West, distinguished looking, with slicked-back hair and moustache, apparently at work in his studio. What he cannot understand is that the room the painter is standing in is full of paint pots with great daubs of paint on them, that the floor has daubs of paint across it too, that there are lots of different brushes resting in white spirit, that the painter is wearing a paint-spattered smock, but that, without soiling it in any way, he’s working on a blank, spotless canvas, and he’s using a cutter to make vertical slashes, nothing more, vertical slashes. Chii-Teen suddenly becomes very excited, considering the possibility of a body without a mind, the possibility that the studio, the smock, and all the dense mass of painting materials could be a body that has been separated from the pure mind, Cartesian, fleshless, I,e. the blank canvas to which the painter is applying the cutter to.

This passage establishes a hierarchy of realities: the character in the fictional present looking at a two-dimensional image of the past (and, in turn, the reader apprehending fictional reality on the page). It illustrates a shift in context, as the slashes in the canvas, which clearly would have been meaningful to the artist making them, become unknowable to Chii-Teen. And there’s a fleeting sense of hidden order.

The thing is that, for every glimpse of a deeper meaning to reality in Nocilla Dream, there’s a suggestion that what we sense is illusion. The connections in the novel are those of globalisation: not necessarily visible from the ground, but neither indicative of a meaningful structure. Reading Nocilla Dream is the experience of a novel – like the world it depicts – without a centre: slot the pieces together as you will, but what you end up with is no more stable than one of those fragments.


Read more views of Nocilla Dream at 1streading’s Blog, Workshy Fop, and minor literaure[s].

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila: #MBI2016

Tram 83Tram 83 is the debut novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila (published by Jacaranda in the UK and Deep Vellum in the US). It’s set in ‘the City-State’, which has seceded from its parent country and is now a mélange of locals and incomers, many drawn by the lure of wealth from the local mines. Lucien is an incomer, but his main intention is simply to write; he comes to the City-State with the help of his friend Reqiuem, whose preoccupations are rather more… worldly.

The environment of the City-State is multifarious, and can be bewildering to those unused to it. This is reflected in the jagged swirl of the prose and its arrays of details:

The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined. It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place. Jackals don’t eat jackals. They pounce on the turkeys and partridges, and devour them.

Language surrounds Lucien as he tries to make his way through this place: dialogue cuts into description; repetitions abound, such as “Do you have the time?”, the constant, coded solicitation of the women who gravitate towards Tram 83.

Tram 83 is the City-State’s night club, where all the deals are done. In my mental map of the novel, the Tram is its pulsing heart, with lines and circles of language radiating out from there (Roland Glasser’s translation is superb at creating that sense). When reading this book, I was reminded of my experience of reading Mrs Dalloway, and the way that Woolf transformed a geographical space into a linguistic and mental one. It was as though events were taking place not just in London-the-city but also at the level of consciousness and thought.

There’s a similar sense of multiple levels in Tram 83. When Lucien tries to give a reading at the club, he doesn’t last long, and it’s as though he is beaten down by the language of the Tram itself. As the novel puts it:

There’s cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.  They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders.  They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.  The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

Lucien tries to bring his own literature to the City-State, and succeeds to a certain extent. But he can’t tame the literature spreading out from Tram 83, and ultimately he becomes just another part of its web.


Is this a shortlist contender?

Yes, I think so. It’s such a powerful reading experience, I can’t imagine Tram 83 not making my final six. I’d like to see it on the real Man Booker International shortlist, too.

Other reviews

From the shadow panel, Tony MaloneStu and Grant have reviewed Tram 83 to date. You can also find reviews by Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers (who is also maintaining a list of all the shadow panel’s reviews), and Adrian Nathan West at Words Without Borders.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, tr. Roland Glasser (2015), Jacaranda paperback

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar: #MBI2016

NassarTime for the oldest and shortest book on the Man Booker International Prize list. Raduan Nassar is a Brazilian writer who published two main works: a novel, Ancient Tillage (1975), and this novella from 1978. A Cup of Rage concerns a farmer and his younger lover who spend the night together, then argue their relationship to splinters. The couple’s argument takes up 30 pages out of 45, so we are looking at a detailed game of power.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that each chapter of A Cup of Rage consists of one long sentence. Stefan Tobler’s translation really shines here, creating unstoppable torrents of words that carry the reader along in their wake:

For a few moments in the room we seemed to be two strangers observed by somebody, and that somebody was always her and me, the two had to watch what I was doing and not what she was doing, so I sat on the edge of the bed and calmly started taking off my shoes and socks, holding my bare feet in my hands and feeling how lovely and moist they were, as if pulled out of the earth that very minute…

I found that last image quite unsettling: it’s in keeping with an individual who’s so self-regarding, with such a high opinion of himself; and it shows just how uncomfortably close the book can bring us to this character. The thing is, when we get to the couple’s confrontation, the emphasis shifts from sensations to thoughts and actions. It’s still engaging, with rising tension and the upper hand shifting back and forth; I just found that it didn’t get under my skin in the same way as the earlier chapters. This makes it a little difficult for me to get a perspective on the book as a whole; it may be that I just have to put it down to personal taste.


Is it a shortlist contender?

For me, no. If I had found the main section as vivid as the earlier ones, it might well be in contention; and I wouldn’t rule it out from making the real shortlist. But I’ll be looking to other titles for my MBIP choice.


From the shadow panel, Stu has reviewed A Cup of Rage. I’d also point out Nicholas Lezard’s review in the Guardian; and there’s an article about Nassar by translator Stefan Tobler in the Independent.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Cup of Rage (1978) by Raduan Nassar, tr. Stefan Tobler (2015), Penguin Modern Classics paperback

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler: MBIP 2016


SeethalerMy first stop on this Man Booker International Prize journey is Austria, and a book that passed me by completely prior to its longlisting. The fulcrum of Robert Seethaler’s short (150 pages) novel is Andreas Egger, who is brought to his uncle’s farm as a boy in 1902. Egger remains in the same mountain village all his life, apart from two months serving on the front in Russia and the subsequent eight years as a prisoner in the gulag. A broken leg in childhood leaves Egger with a permanent limp, but he is otherwise strong and agile. The mountains are in his bones:

Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

Everything in A Whole Life returns to the landscape: the encroachment of modernity is symbolised by the cable car being built in the valley, which will bring electricity and more besides. The Second World War happens largely at a distance: for Egger it’s mostly a matter of boring holes in rock, cutting wood, marking time in the camp. Towards the end of his life, thinking to broaden his horizons, Egger takes the bus to its last stop; when he gets there, he has no idea where to go – he may have spent his life in the same place, but that place is his life to a great extent.

In the latest edition of the Peirene Press newspaper, the writer Cynan Jones has an article in praise of short novels:

There’s no room for digression. No room for passenger writing. Every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.

I was reminded of this very much when reading A Whole Life: since the book’s canvas is so large in comparison to the page-count, the account of Egger’s life seems distilled to its essence. The quiet precision of Charlotte Collins’ translation underlines how deeply Egger is connected to his specific surroundings.

I was also put in mind of Angharad Price’s superb The Life of Rebecca Jones (2002; translated by Lloyd Jones, 2010), another short novel about a character who lives for much of the 20th century in the same place. The experiences of their protagonists are rather different, but both novels show lives lived fully despite being bounded geographically. The title of Seethaler’s book is apposite in more ways than one: yes, it chronicles Andreas Egger’s ‘whole’ life from beginning to end; but that life is also whole because it’s lived in the round, for good and ill.



Is this book a shortlist contender?

I’m not sure yet. To my mind, A Whole Life is a solid nominee; but it feels more like a book that may round out my personal shortlist, rather than a shoo-in. Time will tell…


Nobody else on the shadow panel has reviewed A Whole Life as yet, but you can find more reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life, Vishy’s Blog, and A Life in Books.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Whole Life (2014) by Robert Seethaler, tr. Charlotte Collins (2015), Picador paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Man Booker International Prize 2016: the shadow panel’s response

This is the group response of the shadow panel to the Man Booker International longlist.

The Shadow Panel for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize congratulates the official judges on curating a longlist of thirteen fascinating titles, a selection containing many familiar names, but with enough surprise inclusions to keep us on our toes. We are particularly pleased about the geographical spread of the list; with seven of the thirteen books originating from outside Europe, the longlist has a truly global feel, which was certainly not the case with the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.

Of course, as with any subjective selection, there are some areas for discussion. Firstly, we note that female authors are underrepresented, with just four of the thirteen titles written by women. We share the concerns Katy Derbyshire expressed in her piece for The Guardian and would certainly like to see more books by women translated into English. However, we also acknowledge that the figure of 30% is close to the current percentage of translated fiction written by women published in English – and that the percentage among the submitted titles may have been even lower. Unfortunately, with the list of submissions a secret, we are unable to test that suspicion.

Despite the pleasing geographical spread, some areas of the world have missed out. There is nothing from the Arabic-speaking world, and Russian, once again, seems to have fallen out of favour. The largest oversight, however (and one also referred to by Eileen Battersby in her commentary in The Irish Times), is the total omission of books in the Spanish language. In a very strong year for Spanish- language literature in English, we find it surprising (to say the least) that not one of these books made it onto the final list. We would like to mention just a few of these books at this stage to support our point: The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas; In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina; The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila; Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera; My Documents by Alejandro Zambra; Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías. Of course, some of these titles may not have been submitted (again, we are unable to clarify this), but we do find this oversight puzzling.

Still, despite these issues (and the omission of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, winner of the American-based 2014 Best Translated Book Award, when one of the MBIP judges was on the panel), the Shadow Panel is happy to accept the official judges’ decision and will not be calling any titles in this year. However, as always, we reserve the right to create our own shortlist, one which may diverge from the official decision. We look forward to reading, reviewing and discussing the thirteen longlisted titles – and we hope the official judges will enjoy seeing our take on their decisions.

This post is one of a series on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.


Man Booker International Prize 2016: the longlist

Here we go! The first longlist for the new-style Man Booker International Prize was announced on Thursday. The 13 titles in contention are:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portugese by Daniel Hahn (Harvill Secker)
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
  • Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from the French by Jessica Moore (MacLehose Press)
  • Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso Books)
  • The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Chatto & Windus)
  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Jacaranda)
  • A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar, translated from the Portugese by Stefan Tobler (Penguin Modern Classics)
  • Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (MacLehose Press)
  • Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliner Boem (Atlantic Books)
  • White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Faber & Faber)
  • A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador)

(The tiles above will, as ever, become links as I post about the books.)

My first impressions? I’m excited to read these books: I’m pleased that there’s such a strong showing for non-European fiction, and the three titles I’ve already read – The Vegetarian, White Hunger, and Mend the Living – are all strong contenders in my view. It would be over-optimistic of me to expect to love everything on the list (though I can hope…), but I am anticipating a strong competition this year.

There are, inevitably, omissions. Particularly striking to me is that there’s nothing translated from Spanish, because most of the titles I was hoping to see would fall into that bracket (Signs Preceding the End of the World, Mildew, and The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, in case you were wondering). But I don’t want to dwell on that – at least not until I’ve read what actually has been longlisted…

What I can say for now is that, at first glance, the Man Booker International longlist puts the lists of many Anglophone literary prizes rather in the shade. So please join us on the shadow panel – Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, Lori, and me – as we read along. It will be quite a ride.

Coming up tomorrow: read the shadow panel’s official group response to the longlist.

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal: a European Literature Network review

maylisThis week, I made my debut as a reviewer for the European Literature Network website. The book I’m reviewing is Maylis de Kerangal’s second novel to appear in English, Mend the Living (translated from the French by Jessica Moore; the US market has a different translation, Sam Taylor’s The Heart).

I could tell you that Mend the Living is the story of a heart transplant, and that would be true; but it wouldn’t prepare you for the extraordinary, kaleidoscopic sentences:

What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows; what it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt – love; what it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, what it has filtered, recorded, archived, black box of a twenty-year-old body – only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo it, could show the joy that dilates and the sorrow that constricts…

Already in this opening fragment, the line between the medical and emotional meanings of the human heart is being blurred, and so Mend the Living continues. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find this novel in contention for the Man Booker International Prize; read my review to find out why.

Now read on…

Stu has a good review of Mend the Living at Winstonsdad’s Blog; and there’s an interesting conversation between de Kerangal and Moore over at BOMB Magazine.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal, tr. Jessica Moore (2016), MacLehose Press paperback

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