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Women in Translation Month: Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

In Denmark, a linguist named Knut is watching a TV show about people from in countries that no longer exist. One woman catches his attention in particular, with her unusual name (Hiruko), appearance (she looks a bit like Björk on that album cover), and language (she speaks a pan-Scandinavian tongue of her own devising).

Knut sets out to meet Hiruko and find out more about her. Hiruko’s country has vanished beneath the sea, and with it any knowledge of the word ‘Japan’ – as just one example, Knut thinks that sushi is Finnish. What Hiruko wants most of all is to find someone else who speaks her native tongue. Knut resolves to help her, and they set off on a journey across Europe.

Along the way, Hiruko and Knut gain several fellow-travellers, including Akash, a trans Marathi-speaking student, and Tenzo, who turns out to be a Greenlander rather than Japanese. Everyone is between worlds in some way. Different characters narrate across Tawada’s novel, so that no one is truly at the centre. What we then have is an exuberant exploration of how language can help to make and remake identity, and how we might find different ways to belong.

Published by Granta Books.

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

My short Mexican season begins with a debut novel that came out in the early 2010s, just before I really started paying attention to translated fiction. It’s just been reissued as a Granta Edition, so now was a good chance to catch up.

Faces in the Crowd is narrated in fragments, a life (or lives) that won’t be pieced together easily. Valeria Luiselli’s narrator is a young woman who contrasts her current family life in Mexico City with her earlier, freer life in literary New York. That earlier life is now so far removed that it might as well be another world:

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses 

Translation from spanish by Christina macsweeney

The narrator is writing a novel of her life, and the question arises of what we can trust to be ‘true’. She tells outlandish tales, such as the time she fabricated an entire manuscript to get a New York publisher interested in the (historical) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. Not to mention that she kept seeing Owen’s ghost.

On top of this, the narrator’s husband reads and comments on the novel-in-progress, adding a further layer of fiction. Then there are passages apparently narrated by Gilberto Owen, who catches glimpses of a mysterious young woman…

In the end, perhaps nothing in this novel can really be trusted – which is what makes it such a rush to read.

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.

Pew by Catherine Lacey: Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize

Today’s post is part of a blog tour covering the shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize (the winner of which will be announced on Thursday). I’m reviewing Pew, the third novel by Catherine Lacey. I’ve previously written about her debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing; like that earlier book, Pew focuses on a protagonist who’s elusive even to themself. 

Lacey’s narrator is an individual with no memory or identifiable characteristics. They’re dubbed Pew because they are found in the church of a small American town. The townsfolk welcome Pew at first, but Pew’s reluctance to say anything unnerves them, and their attitudes change. There will be a Forgiveness Festival in town at the end of the week, and the reader has reason to suspect that this may not be as wholesome as it sounds… 

With Pew staying silent, conversations are one-sided. Pew becomes an empty presence, and the town’s inhabitants fill the void with their own stories. The novel explores questions of what makes a person, and how individuals and communities relate to each other. Underneath it all is the figure of Pew, who might be looking for a place to belong, or might not need one after all. Lacey’s book is enigmatic, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. 

Published by Granta Books.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

This is Mariana Enríquez’ second story collection to appear in English translation by Megan McDowell (though it was her first to be published in the original Spanish). I would have loved Things We Lost in the Fire to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (as it was then), so I was pleased to see that this collection had made it.

Enríquez tells tales of urban horror, with vivid unsettling images such as the dead baby that returns as a ghost in ‘Angelita Unearthed’, though not necessarily as the kind of spirit that the protagonist anticipates. Then there’s ‘The Well’, in which a woman tries to excise the fears that have blighted her life by returning to a witch she visited as a child. There’s a real sense of nightmare about it. 

My favourite piece in the book is the novella ‘Kids Who Come Back’. This is the story of Mechi, who works at the archive for lost children in Buenos Aires. Mechi’s life (and other people’s) is turned upside down when missing children start to reappear – though all is not as it seems. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to Enríquez’ novel Our Share of Night, which is being published in McDowell’s translation next year. 

Published by Granta Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

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.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Ross Raisin

My Ross Raisin anecdote goes like this: I heard him read from his second novel, Waterline (during which he gamely affected a Glaswegian accent to match the narrator), at the first Penguin General Bloggers’ Night. We got talking afterwards, and I mentioned that we were from the same county – though, as an ardent supporter of Bradford City FC, he wasn’t best pleased to learn that I was from Huddersfield (all in good humour, though, I should add!).

Anyway, Raisin is one of the Granta novelists whom I’ve meant to read, but not yet got around to (I’ve heard such good things about God’s Own Country, I really must read it). ‘Submersion’ is a new and complete story to end the Granta anthology; it sees a pair of siblings heading back to their flooded home town when they see news footage of their father being carried away by the water, still sleeping in his armchair. It’s a strange story that floats on reality like debris caught in the flood. It underlines that I should read more of Raisin’s work – as is the case with a good number of the authors on Granta‘s list.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

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