Taghistorical fiction

The Photographer – Meike Ziervogel

You might know Meike Ziervogel best as the publisher of Peirene Press; but she’s also built a career as a novelist over the last few years. The Photographer is her fourth novel (published, like the others, by Salt), and draws upon the history of the 11 million Germans who fled west in 1945 to escape the fighting. Like Han Kang’s Human Acts (albeit in a rather different way), Ziervogel’s book examines a large human event at an intensely individual scale.

In a small Pomeranian town, a young girl named Trude dreams of being whisked away by her prince. In 1933, shortly after turning eighteen, she finds him: a photographer named Albert. His work allows the couple to travel Europe; later they have a son, Peter. However, Trude’s mother Agatha never takes to Albert: he’s “a boy from the gutter”, not fit for her daughter. Discovering from Peter that Albert listens to enemy radio is all the pretext Agatha needs to report him to the authorities and get him sent to the front. In 1945, the family is forced to leave for Berlin before Albert has returned. The rest of Ziervogel’s novel chronicles how this broken family heals itself.

Appropriately enough given its title, The Photographer revolves around themes of image and appearance, which are often tied to social status. So, for example, we begin with Trude’s dreams of a romantic life – which, for a while, she gets. But, when the family flees to Berlin, those dreams come crashing down around her:

She hasn’t even put on any lipstick and looks like a common woman with a tear-stained face whose husband has just been taken away, has just died. There are thousands and thousands of these women. She feels ashamed to be one of them now.

All of a sudden, Trude feels that her individual, exceptional story has collapsed into something generic: the tale of any other refugee wife. To an extent, she’s right: in the grand sweep of history, she will become part of a statistic, one of those 11 million people. What Trude overlooks, though, is that each of the refugees has their own life, as rich to them as hers is to herself.

In 1947, the family is reunited after Albert has been released from Russian captivity. Here, there is a key lack of images: Albert and Peter can’t remember what the other used to look like, and therefore can’t recognise each other in the present. They have to get to know each other from first principles in order to bridge the gap of the years

Albert’s sense of displacement extends to how he has come to think of photography:

While before the war the camera was his extended eye, which he used to capture his view of the world, it was now what protected him, behind which he hid, which kept him, the real Albert, at a distance. Far, far away from everything that was happening around him.

Where Albert once faced the world with confidence, now photography is just about his only point of stability. No surprise, perhaps, that he attempts to reach Peter by trying to get him interested in photography, although the boy would rather spend his time boxing. Ultimately, it seems, Albert and Peter need to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. 

The Photographer has that wonderful combination of being dense with reading, yet with an openness to the writing. The novel is structured like a photo album: whole lives are narrated, but intermittently. Some events are told in detail; others have to be inferred by the reader; still others are so private that they don’t appear on the page. This is a novel of history as something lived through and looked back on, vivid incidents scattered among the threads of life.

Other reviews 

Read other reviews of The Photographer by Mika Provata-Carlone at Bookanista, and Jackie Law at Bookmunch

Book details

The Photographer (2017) by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, 171 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Explosion Chronicles: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Yan Lianke, The Explosion Chronicles (2013)

Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (2016)



Yan Lianke is the only author to appear in last year’s MBIP longlist as well as this year’s. I didn’t get chance to review his The Four Books last year, but I did enjoy it, even though I was flagging by the end. I ended up having much the same reaction to The Explosion Chronicles.

Yan’s novel narrates the history of the fictitious settlement Explosion (named after a volcanic eruption), in particular its expansion over the last sixty years from a village all the way up to a megalopolis. Much of this history revolves around two rival clans, the Kong and Zhu. Explosion gains its initial wealth from the villagers’ following Chief Kong Mingliang’s example and stealing (sorry, unloading) coal from passing trains. The previous chieftain’s daughter, Zhu Ying, makes her fortune elsewhere through prostitution, then comes back to Explosion in order to build an empire there.


To my mind, Yan’s prose style (in Rojas’ translation, of course) often has a folktale quality; and there are touches of magical realism that push the novel into absurdity, if it’s not there already. But Yan’s afterword reveals that some of the events which I had assumed were made up had their basis in actuality. Yan calls his approach ‘mythorealism’, and explains that he felt he had to stretch reality in order to address the particular changes in Chinese society with which The Explosion Chronicles is concerned. It gave me cause to think again about what I’d been reading.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


What I’ve found having read two Yan Lianke novels is that I do enjoy his work, but in small doses. Over 450 pages (the length of The Explosion Chronicles), it becomes a little wearying, as the novel is quite repetitive. Yan’s book won’t make my top six, but I can see absolutely why it might find a place on the official shortlist.

The Traitor’s Niche: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche (1978)

Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (2017)



At the centre of the Ottoman Empire, carved into Constantinople’s Cannon Gate, the Traitor’s Niche lies ready to host the severed head of the latest individual to rebel against or displease the sultan. Abdualla is guardian of the niche; when not inspecting the head, he watches the people in the square, silently.


At the edge of empire, Hurshid Pasha has suppressed the latest rebellion of the province of Albania. He is presented with the head of Ali Tepelena, Albania’s ill-fated governor. The head is duly given to the sultan’s courier, Tundj Hata, who takes it back to Constantinople – but not without charging a few villagers for the privilege of seeing it along the way.


The Traitor’s Niche was my first Kadare novel, but I don’t intend it to be the last – in Hodgson’s translation, his brisk prose is delightful to read. What appears to be simply a yarn becomes more serious as Kadare reveals the lengths to which the empire will go to suppress opposition, as it seeks to extinguish languages, folk traditions, even memories. The novel then revolves around contests for human and cultural spaces: the head in the Traitor’s Niche commands the attention of those in the square it overlooks; if the empire extinguishes a culture in thought and practice, its former people wander lost in an empty human space that can easily be stepped into. 


The original Albanian version of The Traitor’s Niche was published in 1978; there may well be some parallels between the political situation at that time and the world of the book, parallels I’m missing because I don’t have that context. Nevertheless, I found much to enjoy and think about in Kadare’s novel as I found it.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Lacking any deeper background knowledge, I have to consider The Traitor’s Niche primarily as an enjoyable novel to read – which, when it’s done this well, goes quite a long way. Even so: compared to the experience I’ve had reading some of the other longlisted books, is that enough for the shortlist? Well, maybe. It would be a close call. But maybe.

The Unseen: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen (2013)

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (2016)


This novel depicts the Barrøy family, sole inhabitants of a Norwegian island that bears their name, in the early 20th century. Each chapter is a discrete ‘slice of life’, reflecting the largely unchanging nature of island life – there is a sense, at least to begin with, that the story of an individual chapter could have been told at any time. The family move to different rooms in the house depending on the temperature outside; and the weather dictates when they can fish.

However, time catches up with the Barrøys eventually, in more ways than one. Hans, the head of the family, wants to build a quay in order to connect the island to mainland Norway. The modern world encroaches, as does the passing of generations; Hans’ daughter Ingrid has to navigate her way between the old life and the new.

Bartlett’s & Shaw’s translation is subtle and vivid. I particularly like their use of comma splice, which makes description and action bleed together like wet paint. This technique underlines that everything is connected in island life; The Unseen explores what happens when that life is disrupted.

Should this book make the MBIP shortlist?

My honest answer is: I don’t know yet. The Unseen is a good book, but not a shoo-in for me. I’d have to see what more of the longlist is like before I could place Jacobsen’s novel definitively. Having said that, if The Unseen were to be shortlisted, I wouldn’t begrudge it a slot. 

Some reviews elsewhere

I haven’t been posting links to my external reviews lately, so here’s a round-up of the most recent four: all books that are worth your time.

winterlingsThe Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (tr. Samuel Rutter). Twenty-five years after being evacuated to England, two sisters return to the Galician parish of their childhood. The place is otherworldly to them, but they also have a glamour of their own – and so mystery encroaches on the reader from all sides. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

 

beast

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Second part of the thematic trilogy that began with The Wake. This volume is set in the present day, and focuses on an Englishman in search of his place in the landscape. A strange creature haunts the corner of his eye, and his language grows more primal as he heads further into hallucination. Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

 

brussoloThe Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo (tr. Edward Gauvin). A tantalising slice of weirdness set in a reality where art is retrieved from the depths of dreams. One man believes that the dream realm has its own objective existence – and he’ll risk his very self to prove it. Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

 

tobacconist

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (tr. Charlotte Collins). A new novel in English from the author of A Whole Life. The tale of a young man who becomes a tobacconist’s apprentice in 1930s Vienna and strikes up a friendship with Sigmund Freud. Love begins to stir, just as the shadow of the Nazis grows. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

#Woolfalong: Orlando

OrlandoTime for another post on #Woolfalong, Heavenali’s year-long celebration of Virginia Woolf, who was a new writer to me at the start of 2016 and is fast becoming a favourite. The theme for July and August is ‘biography’; Orlando is included as an option, despite really being a novel – and I had a copy on my shelves, so that was what I went for.

I’m not going to try to encompass everything I could say about Orlando in this post. I just want to pick out a couple of things that have most struck me. The first has to do with the book’s subtitle: ‘A Biography’. Chances are you will know the premise, but just in case you don’t: Orlando narrates the story of a young nobleman who becomes a favourite of Elizabeth I, then ambassador to Constantinople, where he transforms into a woman; she then lives on into the 20th century, without visibly ageing. The novel is framed as a biography, and is written in the style of one. But I started to realise that there’s more to it than this – the biographical form is fundamental to what Orlando is.

It’s another example of how Woolf uses writing to create alternatives to geographical space in her fiction. I first came across this in Mrs Dalloway, which places its characters within a landscape of consciousness: most of the key events occur at the level of thought and perception, but the way the book is written puts these on the same level as events that take place in physical streets and houses.

In the case of Orlando, Woolf creates a landscape of time. This is where the biography form is key, because the point of historical biography is that the individual is a subject is a fixed point, and the rest of history happens around them. Orlando is an individual who moves through time like others move through space, and the prose is elastic enough to facilitate that: months or years may pass in a few lines, but Orlando is always there and the book will reorient around her. This is what gives the experience of reading Orlando such a feeling of openness.

The other thing I want to mention – and I haven’t come across this much in Woolf’s work so far, certainly not to the same degree – is that Orlando is very funny. Much of its humour comes from Woolf’s sly reminders that we are reading fiction. For example:

 

Orlando quote

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the idea of fiction reminding me that it’s fiction, but I’ve rarely seen it done with Woolf’s lightness of touch (and Orlando predates most of the other examples that I’ve read). It’s as though she’s stretching the reality of her text a little too far, just for a short time – a toy to be picked up and discarded again.

With my last couple of #Woolfalong reads, I wasn’t quite as taken as with Mrs Dalloway; but now I’m right back up there, and eager to read more Woolf.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperbackA new post

Addlands by Tom Bullough

AddlandsTom Bullough grew up on a farm in Radnorshire on the Welsh borders. As an administrative county, Radnorshire is no more, having been officially absorbed into Powys in 1974; but Bullough notes on his website that there’s still a Radnorshire which persists in people’s conception of the area. Addlands, Bullough’s fourth novel, is set in Radnorshire; and that sense of a distinct place, a specific landscape, runs deep throughout.

The novel begins in 1941, on the day when Etty Hamer gives birth to a son, Oliver. Idris, Etty’s older husband, is out ploughing the fields; the farm is his life – even the midwife’s news of a bomb being dropped nearby doesn’t shake Idris from his work:

‘Oh,’ Idris repeated, as if this woman were a stranger, as if they had not sat within ten yards of one another every Sunday for the past twenty years. He turned his eyes another inch into the darkness and held up the lamp to light the old wooden bridge that led across the flem to the house. ‘I had best fodder the beasts, I had. Please to go on in, Mrs Prosser.’

Subsequent chapters return to the Hamers and their farm every few years, all the way through to 2011. Oliver grows up, to become a figure of some renown in the local community. There are changes in the family and other relationships; the farm and wider area face shifting fortunes; new technologies and social developments leave their mark. Through it all, Addlands maintains a distinctive relationship between reader, character, and setting.

One thing that stands out early on is Bullough’s use of dialect. Here, for example, is a conversation between the young Oliver and a friend in 1952:

Oliver grunted, took the spare pair of gloves and pulled one over his bandaged hand.

‘You looks like your puppy just grew up a fox!’

‘Mam is in a kank.’

‘I hearkened her, to be honest with you. Kept back again, is it?’

‘Six blasted stripes.’

‘By Gar, boy! What did you do? Punch old Willie?’

‘Griffin.’

‘Griffin,’ Albert snorted. ‘Still having a go, then, is he?’

Even in context, it takes a little time to decode this exchange about getting in trouble. But I don’t find this dialect to be like – say – the nicknames in Morvern Callar, keeping the reader out of a secret world. It’s more a feature of the landscape, something to which you do have to adjust, but which will become familiar in time.

Above all, though, what strikes me about Addlands is how the progression of the novel is oriented around the place rather than the characters. If you’ll forgive a generalisation: typically, in a generational saga like this, we (for which read: I) might expect the family’s experiences to be the linking thread, and for the book to deal with changes in the wider world in the context of how they affect the family. We still get that in Addlands, but there’s a subtle difference in emphasis: some key events in the ‘human’ story of the Hamers are missing, and everything is related back to the farm above all. So this becomes a story of the family as a part of their landscape.

There’s a scene set in 1957 where Idris is reading over the detailed records he has kept of the local farms’ sheep flocks. “This was the knowledge that allowed you to survive,” comments Bullough’s narrator, “not the doddle you were told in a classroom. Had [Idris] wished, he could have traced the blood-line of almost any sheep within fifteen miles, as like as not through forty generations.”

Contrast this with a moment from 1996, when Oliver is visited by a young woman who admires the poetry written by Oliver’s ex: “You’re surely aware that you appear in her work?” says the visitor. “I mean her Drought collection. That more or less started me writing myself…It’s one of the formative books in post-pastoral poetry.” Oliver’s reply is tart: “Post-pastoral? We in’t done yet, girl.”

Four decades earlier, the farming life was ingrained in this land, powered by knowledge and instinct which had built up over years. Now, it has become something that can viewed from a distance, in the abstract. But, as Oliver notes, the farms are still there: life still goes on, despite everything. According to the novel’s epigraph, by W.H. Howse, the word ‘addlands’ refers to “the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all”. That’s the land of the Hamers: the land that remains to the end.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Addlands (2016) by Tom Bullough, Granta hardback

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: a Shiny New Books review

EnrigueI’m back at Shiny New Books with a review of a new Mexican novel: Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (translated by Natasha Wimmer). As I note in my introduction, there’s some really exciting fiction from Mexico appearing in my translation (see my posts on books by Yuri Herrera, Paulette Jonguitud, and Juan Pablo Villalobos, for example); Sudden Death is no exception.

How to describe it, though? The novel is built around a game of tennis between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. But it also deals with the forces that shaped the formation of the modern world in the 16th and 17th centuries – and which, perhaps, still help to shape the world today.  A synopsis can’t do it justice; you just have to read it.

A few links:

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Sudden Death (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer (2016), Harvill Secker paperback

 

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.

mbi2016-logo-rgb-pink

 

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…

Elsewhere

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.

David Lagercrantz, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (2009/15)

WilmslowI’m slightly wary of fiction that centres on genuine historical figures. It comes from a personal preference: that I’m not particularly interested in using historical fiction to learn about history – I want the experience of reading fiction first and foremost. So I prefer something like Mrs. Hemingway, which casts its material into interesting fictional shapes, over a thinly-veiled historical biography. The line between the two is fine, and can be tricky to walk.

Despite my natural wariness, I was intrigued by the sound of this novel by David Lagercrantz (the author who’s continuing Steig Larsson’s Millennium series). Set in 1954, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (which is translated from the Swedish by George Goulding) focuses on Leonard Corell, a police detective investigating the death of Alan Turing, who has apparently killed himself with a poisoned apple.

Corell’s position means that he has to work backwards: at first he knows simply that Turing was convicted for performing homosexual acts. Only later does he learn about Turing’s mathematical work, and later still about his work at Bletchley Park. For me, this led to a curious inversion of what can often happen with translated fiction: rather than coming across unfamiliar terms, I actually knew more about Turing’s story (in outline, if not detail) than the protagonist. Perhaps that’s why I found that Fall of Man in Wilmslow never quite shook off its biographical aspect.

In terms of the novel-as-novel, Lagercrantz casts Corell as a part-reflection of Turing: for example, he has his own flashes of brilliance, being able to deduce the kind of secret work that Turing was undertaking at Bletchley, which brings him to the attention of those who would rather that such things were kept secret. It’s an interesting frame for Turing’s story, though perhaps inevitably Corell is not as compelling a figure as the mathematician. Fall of Man in Wilmslow walks that fine line, but not quite deftly enough.

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