TagPushkin Press

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Three reviews: İşigüzel, Nors, Glaister

A trio of short reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Şebnem İşigüzel , The Girl in the Tree (2016)
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers (2020)

The narrator of this novel is about to turn 18 when she decides she’s had enough. She climbs the tallest tree in an Istanbul park, and determines to stay there. The text we read is her account of her past, present and future. ⁣

It’s the voice that strikes me most of all: a smart, articulate voice that loops back and forth between stories, able to command a world within the tree even as she’s trying to make sense of the world below. The girl’s reasons for wanting to escape her life gradually become clear, encompassing events in her family and broader violence. This is a poignant, engaging and ultimately hopeful book.

Published by AmazonCrossing.

Dorthe Nors, Wild Swims (2018)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

I knew from reading Dorthe Nors’ previous collection, Karate Chop, that her stories tended towards character studies with a dark streak. So, when I saw there was a story called ‘Hygge’ in this new collection, I suspected that it wouldn’t be as cosy or convivial as the title suggested. ⁣

‘Hygge’ is narrated by a retired professor who views himself as something of a silver fox. He treats the attention of the ladies at the senior club with an air of bored amusement. At the moment he’s with Lilly, they’ve just had an argument, and she would like that to be put behind them. The narrator is reminded of his old Aunt Clara and his students in the 1970s – for different reasons, neither of them good. The ending is truly chilling.⁣

Elsewhere in Wild Swims, we find ‘The Fairground’, in which a woman compares the idealised version of love she imagined in childhood with the disappointing reality she has experienced as an adult, with an abandoned fairground serving as a metaphor for the difference. The protagonist of ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ keeps herself busy helping out a terminally ill friend, but there’s a sense that she is also propping herself up. In ‘By Syndvest Station’, two friends collecting for charity encounter an old woman in deep poverty and distress – one is shaken, but the other has something else on her mind. It’s another fine collection of stories from Nors.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Lesley Glaister, Blasted Things (2020)

Every novel of Lesley Glaister’s that I’ve read – this is the third – has been atmospheric, Blasted Things perhaps most of all. ⁣

In 1917, Clementine is a nurse on the Western Front. She is about to elope with Powell, a Canadian medic, when he is blown up. Clem is reluctantly forced to return to life with Dennis (a doctor who stayed behind to treat people in the UK), which is where we find her again in 1920.⁣

A chance encounter leads Clem to meet Vincent, whose face was partially destroyed in war. He reminds her of Powell, and she falls for his well-spoken charm. But Vincent is really a grifter, who’s out to see what he can get from Clem. ⁣

There’s some really effective writing in Blasted Things such as when Glaister breaks up her usual style to convey the disorientation of wartime. I also found it a gripping story – you just sense that the tale of Clem and Vincent will not end well, but exactly how it plays out is another matter.

Published by Sandstone Press.

A Simple Story – Leila Guerriero

After a look back, it’s time for my first ‘new’ post for this year’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story is a piece of journalism from Argentina. Every year in the town of Laborde, young working-class men compete to be crowned champion of the malambo, a physically-demanding traditional dance. Custom dictates that the winner must never perform the malambo again – but the prestige he’ll gain is unparalleled.

Guerriero says in the book that she set out to write about the malambo competition in general, but that changed when she saw Rodolfo González Alcántara dance:

He became the countryside, the dry earth, the taut pampas horizon, he was the smell of horses, the sound of the sky in summer, and the hum of solitude – fury, illness, and war. He became the opposite of peace. He was the slashing knife, the cannibal, and a decree. At the end he stamped his foot with terrific force and stood, covered in stars, resplendent, staring through the peeling layers of night air. And, with a sidelong smile – like that of a prince, a vagabond, or a demon – he touched the brim of his hat, And was gone.
(translation by Thomas Bunstead)

A Simple Story then follows Rodolfo as he trains for the 2012 Laborde festival. Though the two books are quite different, I was reminded of Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot, which captures a similar sense of physicality and all-consuming determination.

If you’d like to see Rodolfo dancing the malambo, here’s a clip.

Book details

A Simple Story (2013) by Leila Guerriero, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback.

My Sweet Orange Tree – José Mauro de Vasconcelos

According to the press release, My Sweet Orange Tree has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. It’s a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 19 languages… but it has been out of print in English for over 40 years, until this new translation by Alison Entrekin, published by Pushkin Press. 

My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical novel, based on José Mauro de Vasconcelos’ childhood in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The book introduces us to Zezé, a precocious five-year-old with a tendency to play pranks on others, which often leads to him being beaten. He’ll tell others that he has the devil in him and should never have been born, yet he has charm and kindness to match his cheek. 

Zezé’s family struggles to get by: there are seven siblings to provide for, but Father is out of a job, so Mother has to work as much as she can at the factory. It means there are no presents waiting this Christmas in the shoes that Zezé has left outside his bedroom door. “Having a poor father is awful!” he blurts out, not realising that his father is right there to hear him. This leaves Zezé unable to act:

I felt like racing down the street and clinging to Father’s legs, crying. Telling him I’d been mean – really, really mean. But I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I had to sit on the bed. And from there I stared at my shoes, in the same corner, as empty as could be. As empty as my heart, careening out of control. 

But one of the things that’s so charming about Zezé is that he always has a plan. In this case, he decides to head out with his shoe-shine tin, to see if he can earn enough money to buy his father a gift. 

Zezé also has a broad imagination to match his resourcefulness. When the family moves house, Zezé claims a sweet-orange tree in the garden for himself. He names it Pinkie, imagines he can hear it talk, and whiles away hours riding in its branches with Tom Mix and other movie cowboys of the day. 

But friendship in the real world becomes increasingly important to Zezé. There are some memorable scenes as he becomes the helper of a man who visits the neighbourhood once a week to sing the latest popular songs and sell brochures of lyrics. Most important of all to Zezé, though, is his secret friendship with Manuel Valadares, a Portuguese with the finest car in the area. Time spent with him becomes an alternative to Zezé’s family life, a relationship that’s vivid on the page. 

Now that I’ve read My Sweet Orange Tree, I can absolutely see why this book is so beloved. Zezé is such a charming character, and there are some truly powerful moments. I’m glad to have had the chance to read this book, and warmly recommend it to you.

Book details

My Sweet Orange Tree (1968) by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, tr. Alison Entrekin (2018), Pushkin Press, 192 pages, hardback (proof copy provided for review). 

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic: a snapshot review

This is a contemporary title Pushkin Press’s crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo; and also the first novel by Australian writer Viskic. Caleb Zelic, a private investigator, begins the novel with his best friend’s body in his arms. Gary, a cop, has been brutally slain. With the police suspicious of him, Caleb tries to find out what happened. Then his partner-PI goes missing, and his own life is threatened. Caleb seeks help from his ex-wife Kat, but as events unfold, he finds more and more secrets wherever he turns… 

Resurrection Bay is a really enjoyable crime thriller: punchily written and snappily paced, with a vivid cast of characters. Caleb is also deaf, which is handled nicely by Viskic. There’s a sense of fluid communication as he switches between signing and vocalising speech, but there are are also times when we are adrift on a sea of words with him. I’m pleased to hear there will be more novels featuring Caleb Zelic; he’s an intriguing character whom I look forward to meeting again.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Resurrection Bay (2015) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 282 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami: a snapshot review

This is a collection of three stories by the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase); The Nakano Thrift Shop; and Manazuru. The protagonists of all three stories are disconnected from life in some way; Kawakami explores this through various fantastical encounters.

The title story takes its narrator through a series of strange vignettes (dreams?): transformed into a horse; guest at a bizarre banquet. Alternating chapters chronicle her relationship with a girl, who shrinks, disappears and reappears as circumstances change.

In ‘Missing’, the protagonist’s brother has disappeared – though occasionally he returns, and only she can see him. Now the family is trying to find room for the brother’s wife-to-be (who, unbeknownst to her, is now marrying the narrator’s other brother). There’s a deadpan quality to this story which offsets the strangeness, and which I really like.

The final story is called ‘A Snake Stepped On’. Its protagonist does indeed step on a snake — which then turns into a woman, takes up residence in the narrator’s home, and claims to be her mother. As the story progresses, snakes appear all over, perhaps representing …the tensions squirming beneath the surface of everyday life. With some arresting imagery, this story is a fitting end to an intriguing collection.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Elsewhere 

  • An extract from the story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ at Words Without Borders.
  • Reviews of the book by my fellow MBIP-shadowers Tony’s Reading List and 1streading.
  • An interesting interview with translator Lucy North at Bookwitty. 

Book details 

Record of a Night Too Brief (1996) by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Lucy North (2017), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback (personal copy).

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia

Sometimes only a sharp burst of crime fiction will do. Pushkin Press have just launched a new imprint for 20th-centurycrime in translation, Pushkin Vertigo. I tried one of their first titles, Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia.

The respected lawyer Esengrini, confides in Commissario Sciancalepre, that his wife Giulia – 22 years his junior – has vanished. Sciancalepre investigates, following up a lead suggesting that Giulia may have been seeing another man – but it comes to nothing; and several years go by, with progress on the case piecemeal at best.

Despite the lengthy duration of its narrative time, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is only 120 pages long, and so has no room to hang about. Chiara’s novel has the efficiency of a well-run investigation, and there’s also a cool and business-like tone to Jill Foulston’s translation from the Italian. One thing I particularly like about the book is that, for all its twists and revelations, the full truth still feels elusive. Something has happened beyond the confines of the narrative, and we’re left in a similar position to a detective plunged into another person’s life, having to piece together incomplete information. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia turned out to be just the brisk literary walk that I needed, and I’ll be keen to see what else Pushkin Vertigo has to offer in the months ahead.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (1970) by Piero Chiara, tr. Jill Foulston (2015), Pushkin Vertigo paperback

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja and Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

Pushkin Press: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Rabbit Back Lit SocLast week and this, Stu at Winston’s Dad has been celebrating Pushkin Press. Founded in 1997, Pushkin are one of the UK’s leading publishers of translated fiction. I haven’t read many of their books, but, as I’m reading more translations this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore further. The Pushkin book I’ve been reading is Pasi Ilmari Jäaskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006; translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, 2013).

In the little town of Rabbit Back, a teacher named Ella Amanda Milana is disconcerted to find her students submitting essays based on copies of classic texts whose plot details have changed Sonya shooting Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, for example. At the same time, Ella receives an invitation to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an exclusive writers’ club run by the town’s most celebrated author, Laura White. At a party to welcome Ella into the Society, Laura White disappears in an indoor snowstorm – and Ella sets about investigating what happened. She makes use of ‘The Game’, a Society ritual in which members must answer truthfully any question put to them, however painful it is to do so. Ella discovers that a former member of the Society disappeared many years ago – could Ella be next?

There’s a wonderful dissonance to the opening sections of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, as the town and its inhabitants (and Jäaskeläinen’s prose) exhibit a playful theatricality that contrasts with some very real tragedy. On the basis of this, I thought I knew where the book was going to go; I expected a fairly straightforward fantasia, something along the lines of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Not quite.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Rabbit Back is a place which has become infested with story; Laura White’s tales of fantastical creatures have shaped the way in which the town is perceived, by outsiders and denizens alike. White also appears to have had some kind of hold over the members of her Society; and one of the key things about them is the extent to which they have used other people as sources of material for their own writing.

This is reflected in The Game: the idea is not to tell a story in response to a question, but to ‘spill’ – to surrender all the raw, unshaped information one has about the subject raised. It’s all, in a way, reflected in how the novel treats Ella: it is not until well into the book that we start to hear her answers to the challenges she receives through The Game; her emotional responses – such a crucial part of the individual she is – are withheld from us. This is what it’s like, Jäaskeläinen seems to say, when you take away part of someone.

The jarring dissonance of the early section doesn’t carry through to the later parts of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret about that. But what we have instead is intriguing an exploration of how stories can define us, and what it means if reality doesn’t measure up.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Rabbit Back Literature Society: Beauty in RuinsThe Complete Review; Whimsies & Words.

We Love This Book reviews: Jamie Mason and Tom Standage

In my latest pair of reviews for We Love This Book, I’m looking at a darkly comic thriller that launches the new ONE imprint from Pushkin Press; and a history of social media that finds its subject’s roots to stretch further back than you might suppose.

Jamie Mason, Three Graves Full (2012)

“There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”

In Jamie Mason‘s Three Graves Full, the man with the corpse in his garden is Jason Getty, who killed a conman named Gary Harris in the heat of the moment and hastily buried the evidence. We meet Jason as he is hoping the gardeners won’t come across Harris’s body. They don’t – but they do uncover two more bodies that Getty knew nothing about. These are the remains of Katielynn Montgomery and her lover Reid Tamblin, who were killed by Katielynn’s husband Boyd when he found them in bed together when the Montgomerys occupied Getty’s home. Now the police investigation will bring old and new players back to the house.

Three Graves Full can be divided into two parts: the first manoeuvres the main characters into place and reveals the broad extent of what has happened – even when the book is at its most amusing, Mason never allows us to forget the underlying gravity of the situation. The novel then turns into a breakneck chase which is as thrilling as one could wish; overlapping views of the same scene underline that there are partial perspectives all the way down. Mason explores what may happen when people seek to keep the deepest secrets, in a novel that deftly balances humour, action and contemplation.

(Read the original review here.)

Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall (2013)

According to Tom Standage, digital editor at the Economist, ‘social media’ has been around for a lot longer than you might think.

For most of human history, Standage argues in Writing on the Wall, information has mainly been shared between individuals, through personal networks. From this viewpoint, the 20th century’s centralised broadcast media, transmitting information to large numbers of people at once, are a historical anomaly.

I’ll admit I was sceptical about this book at first, concerned that Standage’s approach might be too anachronistic. In the event, I found it quite persuasive. The author goes chronologically through a number of examples, mostly from Western Europe, highlighting the similarities with contemporary social media. The Romans exchanged information through letters which could be intended for wider circulation; comments may literally be written on walls, and sometimes attracted replies.

Individuals at the Tudor court compiled interesting texts into their own commonplace books, rather like someone today adding content to a social media profile. The coffeehouses of 17th century London served as hubs for debate and the exchange of ideas. Even when the facts are familiar, Standage’s interpretation encourages us to look at the past in a new light.

Perhaps inevitably, Writing on the Wall loses a little of its interest when it reaches the development of the internet, because here Standage is narrating history more conventionally, rather than making those unexpected connections between past and present. But the book ends with a salutary reminder that information-sharing does not stand still, and we don’t know where its fascinating story will turn next.

(Read the original review here.)

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