Tag: Reviews

Peirene Press: Un Amor by Sara Mesa (tr. Katie Whittemore)

There’s a Spanish novel in the spotlight today, for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Un Amor is by the same author (and translator) as Four by Four, which I reviewed for European Literature Network a few years ago.

Our narrator, Nat, is a translator who has left the city for a small village named La Escapa (it remains to be seen how much of an escape this actually is). It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, though to Nat, its reality still feels uncertain:

La Escapa’s borders are blurry, and even though there is a relatively compact cluster of small houses – right where hers is – other buildings are scattered further away, some inhabited and others not. From the outside, Nat can’t tell whether they are homes or barns, if there are people inside or just livestock.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore

Nat’s landlord is antagonistic, to the point that she would rather not involve him when any repairs are needed. So, when her roof leaks, Nat finds herself turning to one of her neighbours, known locally as “the German”. He has offered to repair her roof “if you let me inside you for a little while”. 

At first, this is easy to refuse, but eventually Nat talks herself into it as a straightforward transaction. What follows is an escalation of Nat’s relationship with the German, with Nat questioning herself and finding that maybe she doesn’t know herself as well as she thought:

Nat would like to ask what she means to him. She would like to say that, if everything started by chance – a chance as petty, as trivial, as a leaky roof – then she doesn’t get why they keep seeing each other, since their agreement was fulfilled. She knows it’s ridiculous but, deep down, she would like to be the chosen one, to have been seduced after careful planning.

The blurriness of place that Nat perceived on moving to La Escapa manifests again as uncertainty over the cause of her own actions. Mesa raises the stakes as her novel progresses, with Nat searching further in herself as the village takes more notice, leading to a crescendo… and to say any more than that would be telling. 

Un Amor is published by Peirene Press.

all this here, now by Anna Stern (tr. Damion Searls): a map of friendship

It begins with a stark two-line paragraph: “ananke dies on a winter monday, in the afternoon, between four and five o’clock.”

The ramifications of this event spiral out across the rest of the novel, in a series of vignettes from the lives of ananke, the narrator, and their friends: present and future on the left-hand pages, past on the right. We get a sense of how close these people are, how exhilarating their lives together could be:

fred and ananke are already on the street waiting for you when you ride your bikes across the yard and down the driveway, and along the way vienna and cato join too: a gang, your gang. you get goosebumps racing down the hill towards the harbour: it’s early, it’s cold though the day is going to be hot: the first summery day after a grey, wet spring. 

Translated from German by Damion Searls

There are no capital letters in this novel, no gender pronouns attached to the main characters – and the names we know them by are, it is implied, names given among the group. The effect of these together is that the characters recede as individuals in the reader’s view, and the precise detail of their relationship to each other is not always apparent. At the same time, the sense of being in fabric of the gang grows – what matters is the moment. 

The narrator emphasises that, for them, these bonds of shared experience count for more than the circumstances of one’s birth:

family is not blood, not genes. family is memories, it’s tears blending together on tired cheeks; family is what you make of it. what you let be family.

In its final section, Stern’s novel takes a turn, as the vignettes give way to a forward narrative, when the characters decide to retrieve ananke’s ashes. This is where the group’s friendship is tested as never before, because this plan may be too much for the unspoken consensus that has existed between them – and yet discussing any difference of opinion might fracture their relationship beyond repair. all this here, now maps the contours of this group’s friendship, and how the landscape is changed by ananke’s loss. 

all this here, now is published by Lolli Editions.

Leonard Cohen, a Novel by Jeffrey Lewis: haunted by possibility

No, it’s not that Leonard Cohen. This Leonard Cohen is an aspiring songwriter in the 1960s, or maybe he’s the butt of a joke before he has even drawn breath. His ambition is to write a song as good as one by his namesake – or maybe just to step out of the shadow of the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen.

Leonard’s story unfolds in third-person chapters and first-person letters written directly to the more famous Cohen. In 1968, Leonard travels with a group of friends to an anonymous Greek island, where he falls in love with a local girl named Daphne. This is depicted as sudden, mysterious, and all-consuming:

Then some part of him touched some part of her, his hip or hers, his hand, her shoulder, so that he could feel the restless warmth that in the morning had sweated through her clothes. Neither of them could have said who turned first. They kissed because they were there or for a hundred other reasons. You can always come up with reasons, he thought, or she thought. 

Leonard’s relationship with Daphne comes to define his life, but so does the uncertainty running through that quotation. His friends are keen to leave the island, but Daphne wants him to stay. Leonard leaves for a time, and when he returns, he finds that Daphne has apparently died, with a laurel tree (as in the myth of Apollo and Daphne) now growing on ‘their’ cliff. Leonard imagines that he hears Daphne’s voice coming from the tree, but who is to say that it’s not just the breeze?

Time moves on, with Leonard returning to the US, becoming a lawyer, marrying, bringing up two children, and growing old… He lives an entire life, but still ultimately finds himself drawn back to that island, and the laurel tree.

What really animates Jeffrey Lewis’s novel for me is the constant sense of some other version of life being just over there, beyond reach. There’s the knowledge that the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen is out there living his own life, unaware of ‘our’ Leonard. What might it be like to live without other people having a famous reference point as soon as you give your name? What if Daphne had lived, what if she still lives, what if she became that tree? What if it all happened to her instead of Leonard? 

This novel is not a kaleidoscope of possible worlds. In the end, as in life, there is just the one world, for better or worse. But it is a novel – a life, a reading – haunted by possibility. “After Daphne,” Leonard writes to Cohen, “the only stories I came to believe were the ones that could go one way or the other.”

Leonard Cohen is published by Haus Publishing.

MacLehose Press: A Perfect Day to Be Alone by Nanae Aoyama (tr. Jesse Kirkwood)

Twenty-year-old Chizu is feeling disaffected enough when her mother leaves for a job in China. She becomes even more so when she finds out who she’s been sent to live with: seventy-year-old Ginko, a distant relative who might as well be a stranger. “She looks like she’s barely got a week to live,” thinks Chizu. 

Nanae Aoyama’s short novel (originally published in Japanese in 2007) unfolds over the course of a year. It’s divided into sections according to the seasons, giving the impression of a cycle rather than relentless forward momentum – a period of slow change and renewal. 

Chizu is unsure how she wants to be in life, which leads her to put emotional distance between herself and others:

I’d have liked to stay young, to lead a quiet life sheltered from all the drama of the world. But it seemed that wasn’t an option. I was braced for my fair share of hardship. I wanted to try being an ordinary person, living an ordinary life. I wanted to become as thick-skinned as possible, to turn myself into someone who could survive anything.

Translated from Japanese by Jesse Kirkwood

During the novel’s year, Chizu drifts in and out of relationships and jobs. She seems surprised to discover that Ginko has a life, even love, of her own. But living with Ginko changes Chizu. It’s not so much that the two become close, more that seeing Ginko live her life opens space for Chizu to view her own life differently. When the year turns, there is finally a sense that Chizu can move forward positively. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Les Fugitives: After Nora by Penelope Curtis

In her first novel, art historian Penelope Curtis imagines two episodes from her family’s history. The first part concerns Nora (Penelope’s grandmother, whom she never knew), a painter who tries to articulate what her art is ‘about’. Nora comes to feel that landscape is key:

Landscape had, without her quite realizing, become something essential…This had nothing to do with topography, but everything to do with understanding how we manage and what helps. And then she saw that landscape did a good job of disguising itself, wrapping something essential in so many trees. It re-attached litself to us when it was well painted. Then we remembered the painting, more than nature, but we found the painting again once we were back in nature.

In the 1920s, Nora divorces her first husband and marries Lewis, an architect. She is clearly attracted to him, but the exact source of that attraction is mysterious – there’s a certain feeling of distance to Curtis’s writing in this part. It’s not until Nora reads through a packet of Lewis’s letters from the Great War that she has a revelation: the letters’ repetitive nature evokes a way of seeing and feeling landscape that mirrors what Nora saw and felt in her own paintings.

The novel’s second part revolves around the relationship between Nora’s son (Penelope’s father) Adam and Maria de Sousa, both scientists in Glasgow in the 1960s. Scenes alternate between then and the present, after Adam has died, when the author-narrator is in Portugal and tracks down Maria, hoping to gain more understanding of her father’s life at that time.

Both parts then involve a character seeking understanding through art: Nora looking for a deeper understanding of herself through her painting, and the narrator seeking to understand her father better through imaginative writing. But Nora’s story here is itself an act of imagination, which perhaps underlines that there’s a limit to understanding, after all.

Published by Les Fugitives.

#InternationalBooker2024: A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare (tr. John Hodgson)

At the centre of A Dictator Calls is an examination of a short phone call made on 23 June 1934 by Stalin to Boris Pasternak. The subject of the call was the recent arrest of Pasternak’s fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. But its precise details are uncertain, because there are multiple accounts of the call, ranging from the official record to second-hand accounts by people of varying proximity to Pasternak. 

Kadare goes through each version of the call, drawing out the differences and varying interpretations. There’s no single definitive account of exactly what Stalin asked Pasternak, or how Pasternak replied, or even why the call took place. Different versions put different slants on these things, and the ultimate impression is one of no stable reality – which, the book suggests, reflects the nature of living and writing in a totalitarian state. 

Alongside his exploration of the Stalin-Pasternak call, Kadare gives an account of his own experiences as an Albanian writer. This puts into context his interest in the Stalin-Pasternak  call, as well as setting up a counterpoint that runs through the tapestry of the novel.

Published by Harvill Secker.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Julia Sanches)

In Undiscovered, we first meet Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener in Paris, as she visits an exhibition of pre-Columbian artefacts that were taken to Europe by her Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, Charles Wiener. Her father’s death has spurred Gabriela on to investigate the legacy of that side of the family, and this is perhaps the most difficult part: the white ancestor who plundered her country.

As she tells it in the novel, Gabriela experiences a certain affinity with Charles in terms of his writing:

Isn’t that what writers do anyway? Pillage the real story and deface it until it shines its own singular light on the world? At some point, Charles started shining brighter than the world he swore he’d discovered, casting the world around him in his shadow. Scholars of his work agree that he was a travel writer, even though that’s wasn’t his intention and his work reads like fiction.

Translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches

Undiscovered could be seen as Gabriela-the-narrator’s way of trying to process and reconcile the different parts of her identity – not just her past, but also her present. Gabriela lives in Spain in a polyamorous relationship, but then has a fling on a trip back to Lima. One strand of the novel then follows Gabriela’s search for an equilibrium in her personal life. The intertwining of the personal and historical is, to my mind, what most animates Wiener’s novel.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Michael Hofmann)

According to Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Kairos is “the god of fortunate moments”. The chance moment that sets this story in motion occurs in East Berlin in 1986, as two characters meet on a bus: Katharina, a 19-year-old student; and Hans, a married man older than her father. They fall in love and begin an affair, and their thoughts are slightly to one side of each other from the start:

From now on, he thinks, the responsibility for their existence is entirely hers. He has to protect himself from himself. Maybe she’s a monster?

She thinks, he wants to prepare me for difficult times ahead. He wants to protect me. Protect me from myself, and so he gives me the power of decision over us.

He thinks, as long as she wants us, it won’t be wrong.

She thinks, if he leaves everything to me, then he’ll see what love means.

He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.

And she, he’s putting himself in my hands.

Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Over time, the couple’s differences and contradictions emerge more sharply, with Hans emerging as abusive and controlling. In the background, life is changing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things don’t necessarily turn out as the characters may have expected, with the reunification or their relationship. 

Kairos does not present a straightforward one-on-one allegory between wider society and the protagonists’ affair. But relationship and society echo each other in the ways that they change, and the result is a novel that opens up further as you venture in. 

Published by Granta.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (tr. Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn)

Ulises Kan bonds with his father-in-law, retired general Martín, over a shared love of dogs:

They’d drive [Martín’s dogs] in the pickup to a park just before Cota Mil and let them run loose. Sometimes Martín would get out with them. At other times, he preferred to watch from his seat in the truck, following their comings and goings, the jumping, the barking, the growling, and the biting, as if they were running at some crazy racecourse. Martín would always come back home happy, as if he had won, or lost, a bet against himself.

Translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

Ulises decides to get his own dog on the day his wife Paulina leaves Venezuela. Several months later, Martín dies, and Ulises finds that dogs will become even more prominent in his life: Martín has left his house to a foundation for abandoned dogs, and Ulises has been given four months to put everything in place or he’ll lose the apartment he has within the property. 

This set-up intrigued me, and the situation only grows more complicated for Ulises. For example, Paulina contests Martín’s will, the house is under watch, and the woman Ulises now loves has her own secrets to keep. At the same time, the country is falling apart in the background, all making for an eventful novel. 

Published by Seven Stories Press UK.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo (tr. Leah Janeckzo)

My journey through this year’s International Booker longlist begins with an Italian novel. Veronica Raimo’s narrator – also Veronica, or Vero, or Verika – starts by introducing her parents: her mother, who’s convinced that, if Vero’s brother doesn’t answer the phone, it means he must be dead. And her late father, who used to put up walls to subdivide the family apartment into even smaller areas, for reasons best known to himself. 

The way Vero describes these qualities, they come across as wryly amusing at first, until you start to think about them more. There’s a dry humour to much of the narration, such as here, where Vero talks about her family’s noisy household:

We lived immersed in the all-absorbing drone of our bodies and electrical impulses. Compressed and crammed into a home, we were a single organism that wagged its tail, banging it against the partition walls. We talked to each other over the noise, through the noise, which always turned out to be useful in later claiming the other person had misunderstood you.

Translation from Italian by Leah Janeckzo

Vero tells of her life in a series of anecdotes, and it becomes clear that not only does she have a ‘flexible’ relationship with the truth, she’s also using that as a kind of shield. So it’s up to the individual reader how much trust to place in Vero’s voice, but it’s an engaging voice in any case. 

Published by Virago.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

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