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A Mexican selection for July

July means Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month hosted by Stu. I’ve been joining in since 2016, but this year I thought I’d have a theme. Since I started reading translated fiction regularly, some of my favourite books have come from Mexico. I’ve found a few unread Mexican books at home, so they’re what I’m planning to concentrate on this month.

To start things off, though, here’s a look back on some Mexican highlights from past years of the blog…

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa Dillman). Possibly my favourite of all Mexican novels that I’ve read. A crossing over the Mexico-US border becomes a literal descent into the underworld, in a vivid tale of blurred boundaries and thresholds.

Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud (tr. the author). A novel that breaks down the distinction between memory and reality, imagination and physical space. Mildew starts to grow over Constanza’s body on the day before her daughter’s wedding – does she have control over the story she’s telling?

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (tr. Natasha Wimmer). The tale of a cosmic tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, spliced with accounts of a world being formed in the cauldron of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr. Rosalind Harvey). My introduction to Mexican fiction (and one of the key books introducing me to contemporary translated fiction in general). A drug baron’s son gets his wish to travel to Liberia for a pet hippo – and his perspective transforms what we understand.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker). More blurred boundaries in a story of mysterious visitors that treats social marginalisation as contagious.

Well, looking those up has got me excited for reading more… Do you have any favourite Mexican books?

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel was first published in 1988. It’s set during an office worker’s lunch hour, and consists of his lengthy thoughts on the minutiae of life, such as why both his shoelaces snapped in quick succession (were stresses caused by tying the laces, or by the laces rubbing against the eyeholes of his shoes?). 

To give you a flavour of the prose, here the protagonist imagines what will happen after he’s bought a rubber address stamp, paid his bills, and taken some chairs for recaning:

Molten rubber was soon to be poured into backward metal letters that spelled my name and address; blind people were making clarinetists’ finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair, gauging distances and degrees of tautness; somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of Tandem computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in my name was being overwritten with a new magnetic record that corresponded to a figure diminished to the penny by the amount that I had a written out in hasty felt-tip pen on my checks…

The technology fixes Baker’s novel in time to an extent, but in an intriguing way. The protagonist is fixated on the workings of mechanical systems, and of course this is a time when office work is full of them, right down to the frequent use of staplers. There is a real sense of the character interacting with his environment, because what he’s thinking is inevitably tied to the physicality of things. 

I’ve been trying to decide whether The Mezzanine is poking fun at its protagonist’s obsessions, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes it all seems over the top, such as when the character is deciding on the most politic spot to sign his name on a get-well card (not too close to the boss’s name!). Sometimes I just think, this guy is enthusiastic and interested, so good for him. 

Maybe it’s there in the book’s title. The character’s office is on the mezzanine, so when he travels up the escalator, his destination is only part-way up and no further. Looked at another way, he’s found his level, and seems happy with it. Whichever, I’m glad I spent time in his world. 

Published in Granta Editions.

Mid-Year Book Freakout tag

We are coming up to halfway through the year, which is a pretty good time to take stock. For various reasons I haven’t read as much as I usually would (partly through getting stricter at abandoning books, partly through taking more time), but let’s have a look anyway. I found this set of questions on Nina Allan’s blog; here are my answers:

Best book you’ve read so far in 2022. I would have to say Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur), a story collection which had me from the first page to the last. Chung goes straight on to my list of must-read authors.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2022. Well, Marseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (tr. Helen Vassallo) is the only actual sequel I’ve read this year. It’s very good, but also kind of a default answer to this question. Perhaps I could add J.O. Morgan’s second novel, Appliance. This is not a sequel to Pupa, but it is definitely a companion piece aesthetically. I will be reviewing Appliance for Strange Horizons, but I can tell you now that it’s excellent.

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. The first book that comes to mind is Life Ceremony, the forthcoming story collection by another of my must-read authors, Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori). I also can’t leave out Malarkoi, Alex Pheby’s sequel to the wonderful Mordew – sure to be a treat.

Biggest disappointment. I’m chary of calling books disappointments these days, because I know from personal experience that it can be that you’ve just caught a book at the wrong time. So I will say that I’d been looking forward to reading Damon Galgut for the first time, and I was disappointed that I didn’t click with In a Strange Room. Maybe another book, another time. 

Biggest surprise. I’m going to say Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy – not because I didn’t expect to like it (I did), but because it was not on my radar at all until I found it in the publisher’s catalogue.

Favourite new author – debut or new to you. Bora Chung, Russell Hoban, Geetanjali Shree, J.O. Morgan, Nathacha Appanah.

Book that made you cry. I don’t know that any book has made me cry so far this year. Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs changed how it felt to look out at the world from inside my head. 

The most beautiful book you’ve bought so far. Henningham Family Press always publish beautiful books. The Lost Spell by Yismake Worku (tr. Bethlehem Attfield) is no exception. 

What books do you need to read by the end of the year? Well, the beauty of it is that I don’t need to read anything by the end of the year. What I might like to read is another matter…

Looking ahead, July will be Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, for which I plan to catch up on some unread Mexican books that I have. August is Women in Translation Month, and perhaps it’s time for me to read the rest of Agota Kristof’s trilogy, after The Notebook (tr. Alan Sheridan). Later on will be the 1929 Club, which would give me a pretext to read Henry Green’s Living and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (tr. Basil Creighton). There’s also the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist to come… That’s plenty to be going on with, I think. 

Lanny by Max Porter

In the countryside near London stirs Dead Papa Toothwort, a nature spirit who moves through the different layers of life in the village, and revels in the music of human voices. These curl and overlap strikingly on the page:

Lanny is a dreamy young boy from the village with a wild imagination. Many people can’t work him out, as we hear from his parents, a commuter and novelist who are recent arrivals from the city. We also hear from Pete, a local artist who spends time with Lanny, and seems more on his wavelength than most. 

Papa Toothwort understands Lanny, though: he sees that here is someone with an affinity for nature – someone who would respect the deep tales of old, rather than treating them as tourist fodder. As the novel’s first part ends, Toothwort decides the time has come to reassert himself – and Lanny goes missing. 

The second section is my favourite part of the book, as the prose turns into a collage of voices echoing Toothwort’s passages in the first part. Max Porter explores not just the relationship between his village community and the natural world, but also relations within the village – for example, the way suspicion soon falls (unwarranted) on Pete.

The theatrical third part turns to the question of what Lanny means to those closest to him – whether they’ll be honest about it or not. It’s the feelings in Lanny that remain strongest in my mind, the way emotions twist and unpeel as the novel goes on. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

MacLehose Press: Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (tr. Frank Wynne)

GauZ’ is a writer from Côte d’Ivoire who spent time working as a security guard in Paris. That’s what his first novel revolves around: ‘standing heavy’ is slang for ” all the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.” The prologue describes how immigrant Black men tend to fall into security guarding: it doesn’t need much experience, employers aren’t too bothered about your official status, and it’s a way to avoid being unemployed or on zero-hours. 

Three main chapters chronicle the changing experiences of three Ivoirian security guards. In the 1960s and 70s, Ferdinand is optimistic even as French immigration policy changes. He feels he has a good job, and contrasts himself with the students in his residence, who (it seems to him) argue a lot but never actually do much. 

By the 1990s, Ossiri and Kassoum are security guards in a Paris that takes their work for granted. “Send money back to the old country,” says a billboard, symbolising how much of an industry has built up around immigration. Ferdinand himself is now part of that industry, running his own business subletting security jobs. But everything will change in the aftermath of 9/11, when even the most menial security work becomes seen as too important to be left to Black men. 

In between the main chapters are collections of snippets which represent the observations and thoughts of a security guard. For example, closing time at a store:

At the door, there is always someone swearing on her mother’s life that she will only need two minutes. The security guard is eyed with contempt when he refuses to grant these two-minute stays of execution. It is difficult to accept being snubbed by those one never notices. Here, everything is on sale, even self-esteem.

There’s a dry wit throughout Standing Heavy, which is really well conveyed in Frank Wynne’s translation. But there’s also a poignant side to the novel. To me, the chapters of fragments suggest a certain openness to the work of security guarding, which is not there in the closing image we have of Kassoum at work. By then, there are openings for Black security guards again, but it’s a much more regimented atmosphere. Standing Heavy presents a panoramic view of its characters’ world – it says so much in a relatively small space. 

Links

And Other Stories: Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This short Norwegian novel was a hit in my corner of the blogosphere when the English version was published by Archipelago in 2018. Then, a couple of years later, the And Other Stories edition was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. I’m pleased to have finally caught up with it. 

Love was originally published back in 1997, and it’s very much a story of times when people didn’t tend to have communication on tap in their pockets. We meet single mother Vibeke and her son Jon, whose ninth birthday is tomorrow. Both are preoccupied with their own thoughts. 

The structure of Love is striking: within each chapter, the perspective shifts between Vibeke and Jon, but without scene breaks, so their stories merge into and out of each other. This reflects how they live alongside each other: together but separate. It feels as though, even if they were in the same place, they would still be apart. 

For their own reasons, both characters go out. Jon assumes Vibeke must be buying ingredients for for a birthday cake, but she has a work colleague on her mind. Over the course of the evening, mother and son move in similar spaces, even encounter the same characters sometimes – but they remain apart. Love – the idea or absence of it – haunts proceedings.

Ørstavik will often arrange scenes so that Jon and Vibeke are in the same type of environment – different houses or different cars. When these merge together, it flips the sense of the book around: now, even though mother and son are separated physically, they may be closer together in other ways. This plays out with painful clarity at the end, a poignant final chapter to a compelling novel. 

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

I wanted to read Russell Hoban: the question was, where to start? Hoban’s website has a handy page of suggested introductions, and I just went for the book billed as “the most accessible” – 1975’s Turtle Diary

Two characters take turns to narrate: bookseller William and children’s writer Neaera. Both are middle-aged, living in London, lonely. They don’t know each other, but there’s one thing that unites them: a concern for the sea turtles at London Zoo. Held captive, these creatures are unable to follow their natural instinct to navigate to the sea. William observes: “Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean that couldn’t be said.”

Neaera and William have a dream to take some turtles from the Zoo, travel to the coast and set them free. What’s striking to me is that, when the pair first come across each other and recognise their shared preoccupation, they are reluctant to join forces. I kept imagining another version of Turtle Diary, a more straightforward tale of ’empowerment’ in which the protagonists get together readily, pursue their goal single-mindedly, and find their lives changed permanently for the better. 

That version of Turtle Diary wouldn’t be as good as Hoban’s. 

Don’t get me wrong: the turtles matter to William and Neaera, the pair go through with a plan, and there are consequences. But the protagonists’ concern for the turtles comes from a deeply personal place: it’s standing in for a more fundamental absence. As Neaera puts it: “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” This is not necessarily an experience that the characters would want to share with someone else – and setting the turtles free won’t necessarily open up the rest of life. 

I appreciate the knottiness and ambivalence of Turtle Diary: there is hope, but it’s not automatic. Hoban’s writing sparkles… I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this novel before, and I can’t ask a book for much more than that. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Twenty Years of Melville House: The Queue

This year is the 20th anniversary of the publisher Melville House. They publish an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, including an extensive classics range, and I’ve always found their books intriguing. I was invited to review one of their titles for this blog tour, so I thought I’d revisit one of my favourite Melville House books: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette). Abdel Aziz is an Egyptian writer, artist and psychiatrist; The Queue is a sharp tale of authoritarianism.

Following an uprising, a mysterious structure, the Main Gate of the Northern Building – or just ‘the Gate’ – appears in a Middle Eastern city. Large and windowless, it dominates the surrounding physical space; but that’s nothing compared to the effect it soon has on people’s lives. The Gate begins to issue all manner of decrees: ‘before long, it controlled absolutely everything, and made all procedures, paperwork, authorizations, and permits – even those for eating and drinking – subject to its control.’

Then there’s a revolt against the Gate; but this one fails, and the Gate closes its doors. People are forced to queue – for hours, days, longer. Life as it was grinds to a halt:

No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there. The new decrees and regulations spared no one.

Society reorients itself around the queue, to the point that little side businesses spring up providing refreshments, telephone calls, or other services to queuers. The novel’s deadpan tone serves to highlight the fundamental absurdity of this situation, as in (for example) a scene where people at different points of the queue start to argue over its length; and it takes a surveyor calculating the actual distance to stop the groups coming to blows over what might seem such a trivial thing. But this is a measure of how much the queue has distorted life, that it becomes so central to individuals’ preoccupations. There are also those with ulterior motives, waiting to take advantage of the queuers’ predicament: a company named Violet Telecom offers free handsets and calls to people in the queue, but it becomes apparent that their calls are being recorded and transmitted elsewhere.

Alongside the broader story of the queue, Abdel Aziz focuses in on a number of individual characters. Perhaps the central of these is Yehya, who was wounded in the ‘Disgraceful Events’ (as that uprising against the Gate became known) and still has a bullet lodged inside him. He’d like to have it removed, but that requires a permit (bullets being official property, you understand). But the authorities would rather that Yehya’s injury never happened; so his X-ray goes missing, his medical records are censored… and the people around him will find out what happens to those who try to interfere. The Queue is a novel that chills by appearing quiet and abstract, but underneath is an urgent precision.

This post is adapted from my original review of The Queue on Shiny New Books.

Check out the other stops on the blog tour

Tramp Press: Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Sara Baume’s third novel begins with a disconcerting description of a mountain in south-west Ireland. First, Baume emphasises that this apparently passive landscape is full of the eyes of animals:

And each eye was focused solely on its surrounding patch of ground or gorse or rock or air. Each perceived the pattern, shade and proportion of its patch differently. Each shifted and assimilated at the pace of one patch at a time.

Then, the mountain itself becomes an eye:

It’s kept watch on the sky, sea and land, and every ornament and obstruction – the moon and clouds; the trawlers, yachts and gannetries; the rooftops, roads and chimney pots; the turbines, telegraph poles and steeples.

The image of an eye recurs throughout Seven Steeples, along with the sense of the landscape as an antagonistic (or at least indifferent) presence. 

Into this landscape come Bell and Sigh, a couple who believe that “the only appropriate trajectory for a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear.” They have moved here determined to cut all ties with their old lives (for reasons which are at most only hinted at). They resolve to climb that mountain, but for the seven years of this book, it remains unclimbed. 

Seven Steeples is one of those novels that takes you into the minds of its protagonists through the way it’s written. This is not a novel concerned with ‘what happens’ so much as with the ebb and flow of the life Bell and Sigh want to lead. The rhythms of Baume’s prose reflect that the couple want to live as part of the landscape, and it’s absorbing to read. 

Published by Tramp Press.

New Island Books: Lenny by Laura McVeigh

Today’s book is from the small Irish publisher New Island Books (the last title of theirs I read was Sue Rainsford’s excellent Follow Me to Ground). It’s the second novel by Laura Mcveigh, who grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London and Mallorca.

In 2011, a boy named Izil watches a pilot fall from the sky to Libya’s Ubari Sand Sea. The man has lost his memory, but takes the name Goose and is reliant on Izil’s people to help him survive.

In 2012, we meet ten-year-old Lenny, who lives in Louisiana. His mother has left and his father is scarred from PTSD. He spends much of his time with old Miss Julie, who longs for her husband to return from the war in Korea; and Lucy, the town librarian. The town itself has suffered deprivation and is also threatened by a sinkhole. Lenny searches for something he can do to help.

It gradually becomes clear how these two timeframes are connected. What unfolds is then a poignant tale of loss, family and belonging. McVeigh creates a distinctive atmosphere in her novel, one where time itself might potentially be held back or twisted. I enjoyed spending time with Lenny – both the book and the characterisation.

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