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What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

Night Boat to Tangier: trapped in the conversation

In Kevin Barry’s newly Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier (pub. Canongate), ageing Irish gangsters Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have travelled to Spain to search for Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter Dilly. Towards the start of the novel, the pair corner a young Englishman named Benny, who looks like he belongs to the kind of crowd they imagine Dilly has fallen in with. They question him over whether he might have seen her:

Benjamin? Maurice says. We’re not saying ye all know each other or anything, like. Sure there could be half a million of ye sweet children in Spain. The way things are going.

Charlie whispers –

Because ye’d have the weather for it.

Maurice whispers –

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.

Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.

Under the starry skies, Maurice says.

Charlie stands, gently awed, and proclaims –

‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Whose line was that, Maurice?

I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it might have been Little Stevie Wonder.

A genius. Little Stevie.

The dialogue rolls on like this, trapping the reader in the conversation as surely as Benny himself is trapped in the encounter. This is not a situation with any rules that Benny can grasp, and the sense of uncertainty builds: will the next line be friendly or lethal? It’s electrifying to read.

What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Resistance – Julián Fuks

Like its author, the narrator of Julián Fuks’ Resistance is Brazilian, of Argentinian descent. The narrator’s parents were opponents of Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, and had to flee. In the present, the protagonist travels to Buenos Aires, trying to piece together his family’s story. But so much is beyond his reach. For example, in one chapter he describes the evening his parents held a dinner party where no one came, because their friends knew how dangerous it would be to gather together. Fuks’ protagonist realises that he simply cannot grasp what it was like to live in those circumstances:

I can’t conceive of a suppression of the self being exploited to the maximum, the systematic destruction of the void that is the self, its transformation into an object of torture. I cannot imagine, and this is why my words become more abstract the unspeakable circumstances in which staying silent is not a betrayal, in which staying silent is a resistance, the most absolute evidence of commitment and friendship. Staying silent in order to save the other: stay silent and be destroyed.
(translation from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn)

Ideas of resistance run through the book: people resisting oppression, of course, but also history resisting comprehension, or reality resisting being captured in language. But the narrator does what he can, because he feels that he must – that he owes it to his family, and himself.

Book details

Resistance (2015) by Julián Fuks, tr. Daniel Hahn (2018), Charco Press, 154 pages, paperback.

Ten books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month

I don’t know quite where half the year has gone, but it’s July, which means it is Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (hosted this year by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog). I look forward to this month, because I invariably come across some great books. I thought I would start by taking a look back through my archives. Here are ten recommendations (six translated from Spanish, two from Portuguese, one from Basque, one from Catalan), with links to my reviews…

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Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (Basque Country), tr. Elizabeth Macklin – A novel about the history of its author’s fishing family, lives that grow larger in the telling.

I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher (Brazil), tr. Adam Morris – A retiring academic who survived torture by the military dictatorship in the 1970s reflects on the impossibility of telling a coherent story about the past.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (Brazil), tr. Alison Entrekin – A classic tale of childhood chronicling the adventures of a charming young protagonist, which carries a poignant sting at the end.

Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernández Cubas (Spain), tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts – Six eerie stories of unstable reality.

No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Argentina), tr. Nick Caistor – An ex-policeman is framed for murder in a novel that presents its world as an intractable puzzle of corruption which resists attempts to be solved.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (Chile), tr. Megan McDowell – The story of a woman who loses her sight suddenly, then finds herself having to work life out anew.

The Slaughter Yard by Esteban Echeverría (Argentina), tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe – The oldest piece of Argentine prose fiction this is the story of a young man killed by a mob for his political beliefs. A tale of powerful imagery and metaphor.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Catalonia), tr. Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell – The tumult of early 20th century history, experienced through one woman’s ordinary (yet extraordinary) life.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (Mexico), tr. Natasha Wimmer – A tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, played across the sweep of early modern history.

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Dueñas (Spain), tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García – A highly enjoyable historical yarn that moves from Mexico to Cuba and then Spain, as a miner who’s set to lose everything tries his best to stay afloat.

“I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right”

Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932)
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)

Meet Doris:

And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary – that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write it like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so. And I look like Colleen Moore, if she had a perm and her nose were a little more fashionable, like pointing up. And when I read it later on, everything will be like at the movies – I’m looking at myself in pictures.

Doris’s voice comes at us in this beguiling tumble of sentences (a wonderful translation by Kathie von Ankum), as though she’s creating her thoughts and life as she goes. In a sense, she is: she’s a secretary in a “mid-size town” in Germany of 1931, who dreams of being a star and drifts from lover to lover as the tides of circumstance carry her. She’d like love, but equally she is pragmatic about the whole thing. Doris leaves her job when her boss gets the wrong idea about her (she asks him: “How can a highly educated man like yourself be so dumb to think that a pretty young girl like myself would be crazy about him?”). She joins the theatre, doing whatever she can to get ahead – such as pretending that she’s in a relationship with the director, so as to increase her importance in the eyes of others.

Presently, Doris decides it’s time to leave for Berlin. The big city is dazzling – there’s a wonderful sequence in which Doris takes a blind neighbour on a tour, describing what she sees, and the sense of delight and wonder for both of them is palpable. But the extremes of high and low are greater in Berlin than the mid-size town, and life’s pendulum can swing without warning. For example, there is one scene in which Doris has met a wealthy businessman and is living a life of luxury in his apartment… Then, in the very next scene, his wife has returned from a trip, the man himself has been arrested, and Doris has had to sell below cost the few things she could salvage, just to go back to square one.

The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel, published the year before her books were banned by the Nazis (in 1936, she would go into exile). There are glimpses in the novel (mostly unnoticed by Doris) of changing social attitudes that prefigure what was to come. The Artificial Silk Girl is the story of a young woman trying to find a foothold in a world that constantly shifts around her; reading in the present day, we know only too well how fragile that world would be.

Elsewhere
Read other reviews of The Artificial Silk Girl at JacquiWine’s Journal and 1streading’s Blog.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics and in the US by Other Press.

Empty Words – Mario Levrero: a Splice review

After Plume, here’s my second review of the week for Splice. Empty Words (tr. Annie McDermott) is the first novel by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero to appear in English. A synopsis does not necessarily sound like much: it’s written as a series of handwriting exercises, alongside a longer discourse that its protagonist writes, trying (and largely failing) to keep content at bay. There’s more going on than meets the eye: I learnt a lot about the book through the process of reviewing. In the end, it’s the narrator’s attempt to take control of his own life and world.

Read my review of Empty Words here.

Book details

Empty Words (1996) by Mario Levrero, tr. Annie McDermott (2019), And Other Stories, 152 pages, paperback.

The US edition is published by Coffee House Press.

Plume – Will Wiles: a Splice review

This week I’ll have two reviews up at Splice: here’s the first. Plume, the third novel by Will Wiles, is the story of a lifestyle journalist keen to interview a reclusive cult writer who may (or may not) have some special insight into what makes modern society tick. Plume goes from harrowing depictions of its protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism to a sharp examination of how precarious urban life can be. It makes an interesting point of comparison with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is something I talk about in the review.

Read my review of Plume here…

…and here are some more reviews. In The Quietus, Nina Allan considers Plume as a London novel. Jackie Law at Neverimitate is also largely positive. In The Spectator, Christopher Priest calls the novel “joy unconfined”.

There’s also an interesting interview with Wiles over at Minor Literature[s].

Book details

Plume (2019) by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 352 pages, hardback.

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

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