TagIstros Books

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Inventing Love – José Ovejero

The book I’m talking about today is part of Peter Owen Publishers’ ‘World Series’, which is published in association with Istros Books. Twice a year, they publ ish a set of three titles from the same country or region; Spain is the country of choice this spring. The publishers have kindly sent me a set of the books, so I’ll be looking at all three in the next few weeks.

Inventing Love is the second of José Ovejero’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is Samuel, a single man drifting through life at forty. He’s someone who has trouble with the idea of love:

I’ve always avoided the word ‘love’. It’s a noun that’s been devalued, a coin so overused that it’s been rubbed smooth, so that you could hold it between your fingers without feeling the relief design, a coin that I wouldn’t dare use to pay for something in case I was accused of being a fraudster…Does anyone really use it? Do couples really gaze into each other’s eyes and say ‘I love you’?

(Translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles)

One night, Samuel receives a phone call telling him that his lover, Clara, has been killed in a car crash. The thing is, Samuel has never known anyone called Clara. Seizing the chance to add a little colour to his life – and curious as to who this Clara might have been – he goes along to the funeral.

None of Clara’s family or friends knows what ‘her’ Samuel looks like, so it’s easy enough for ‘our’ Samuel to step into the role. After the funeral, he is approached by a woman who turns out to be Clara’s sister, Carina. She’s heard a lot about Samuel, and is curious about this man who led her sister to have an affair. Carina gives Samuel her card; over time, they get talking – about Clara most of all.

At first, it’s Samuel who gets to learn about Clara, allowing him to build his mental picture of this young woman he never knew. But Carina wants to understand the side of her sister that only Clara’s lover would have known… so Samuel has an opportunity to imagine part of Clara’s character for himself, and indeed to shape the image of Clara in the minds of those who did know her.

I don’t think the events of Inventing Love are meant to be taken literally – there are too many fortuitous coincidences for that. Instead, I think of Ovejero’s novel as a space to explore what it means to have a mental picture of someone else, by stretching the concept to such an extreme. 

One issue emerging from the book is how well we can actually know others. Samuel is clear on his view:

We share our lives with strangers. We can live with someone for decades and not know how she really feels when she says ‘I love you’ or replies to a question with the words ‘I’m not angry.’…We live with fantasies we create for ourselves in order to explain to the other person and to create a relationship that reassures us and gives us what we want.

He’s right in a strict sense, in that we are all individuals without direct access to each other’s minds. But then again, it’s not as if Samuel has made much of an effort in the long-term relationships department, so how sure can he be that it’s impossible to know another person?

Rather ironically, there is someone else whom Samuel thinks he knows, and that’s Clara. After some digging around online, he manages to find her Facebook profile, but he doesn’t want to go any further: “I don’t want to enter the false intimacy of her wall because I already know who Clara is, and I don’t want reality to spoil her.”

So there you go: Samuel can gather and imagine all the detail about Clara that he may; his image of, and feelings towards, her could be larger-than-life – but the Clara in his mind will never be ‘real’. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, perhaps the key question facing Samuel is whether love is something he can invent for himself, or whether it has to be found. 

Elsewhere 

Read an excerpt from Inventing Love at European Literature Network. 

At the time of writing, I can’t find many English-language reviews of the book online. Michael Orthofer has written it up at The Complete Review; he also links to Larry Nolen’s review of the Spanish original at the OF Blog, as well as a number of reviews in Spanish. 

Book details 

Inventing Love (2013) by José Ovejero, tr. Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 219 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

QuietFlowsOne thing that really struck me about Human Acts, Han Kang’s novel of the Gwangju Uprising, was how it made violence pervasive but incomprehensible: there is large-scale brutality in the background (and sometimes in the foreground), but the most powerful images for me are the small human movements, because that’s the level at which we can process what is happening. I was reminded of this when reading Faruk Šehić’s debut novel Quiet Flows the Una, which deals with the Bosnian War; because it creates a similar sense of an event that cannot be comprehended within a conventional novelistic frame.

Šehić’s narrator – who is probably named Mustafa Husar (“Sometimes I’m not me,” he says), and might be an analogue for the author – grew up in the town of Bosanska Krupa, whose river is bound into the very fabric of local life:

Our town grew out of people’s bond with the river. The Una is the power that holds the town together, otherwise both the river and its people would have been swept away long ago; like tortoises with houses on their backs, they would have fled far and wide. They know very well that problems vanish by simply watching the flow of the river.

(Translated from the Bosnian by Will Firth.)

Mustafa fought in the war, an experience that still troubles him deeply (“Don’t ask me who I am,” he tells us, “because that scares me”). The pretext of Quiet Flows the Una is that he goes to see a visiting circus with some old comrades, and ends up as the hypnotist’s volunteer; the novel’s chapters are the memories that Mustafa relives. They come at random, from youth and adulthood, wartime and after. The Una flows through it all, touched by conflict but ultimately surviving:

The river flowed as if nothing had changed. Three metres beneath the surface, in the heart of a greenhole, the silence was inviolable. The fish went about their miracles, and the acoustic impressions of an artillery attack on the dot of noon don’t reach them. The forces of nature are insensitive to wartime operations. The tree breaks in half when hit by a tank shell. It has no words to complain with.

Mustafa is quick to point out is that analysis after the fact does not capture the lived experience of war: “I wasn’t a tiny cog in the workings of some cosmic powers – as a real man with a formed personality, I had one private mission: physical survival.” But, with the world he knew slipping away, our narrator also wants to keep it alive somehow, perhaps by describing things in great detail:

I hoped this act of description would make my objects firm and indestructible in the world that surrounded me like an endless dark forest. Everything that was gone forever could be rebuilt with words, I thought…But the loss of the pre-war world of emotions and the palpable objects that comprised it – living rooms (the universe of the intimate), books (time machines) and photographs (time conserved in crystal) – was manifested for me as extreme pain.

So Mustafa’s next thought is to write a book – the book in our hands. “Writing would allow me to make myself a crutch, a substitute world.” Here, Šehić – like Han Kang in Human Acts – makes the problem of writing about his subject part of the text itself. Fiction can’t capture the true reality of war, this novel suggests; but it can create a proxy in words, a space to confront something of that reality. The broken chronology of Quiet Flows the Una reflects an event and an experience which can only be glimpsed In flashes and fragments. But those glimpses are vital, in multiple senses of that word.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Quiet Flows the Una (2011) by Faruk Šehić, tr. Will Firth (2016), Istros Books paperback

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

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