TagWomen in Translation Month

The Castle of Whispers – Carole Martinez

It’s time for some historical fiction, the second novel by French writer Carole Martinez. In the late 12th century, Esclarmonde is the beautiful daughter of a lord; she faces marriage to the philandering Lothaire, scion of Montfaucon, but she knows that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy:

I would be nothing but a modest container whom successive pregnancies would finally carry away. And even if Lothaire died before me, my widowhood would not protect me, but would abandon me again to the highest bidder as a token of some alliance or other. 

(translation by Howard Curtis) 

There’s only one thing that Esclarmonde can think to do: at the wedding ceremony, she cuts off her ear and announces that she will dedicate her life to Christ as an anchoress. Her family’s seat, the Castle of Whispers, has been added to piecemeal over the generations; now her father adds the chapel in which Esclarmonde will be sealed for the rest of her days. She will be considered dead to the world, even receiving the rite of extreme unction.  

However, the night before her confinement begins, Esclarmonde is raped. In the following months, she falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy whom she names Ezléar, “God’s help”. She decides to keep the child, whose birth comes to be seen as miraculous (no one asks Esclarmonde the question that would reveal otherwise). Add to this that no one has been claimed by death since Esclarmonde entered her cell, and the Damsel of the Whispers’ reputation only grows. 

But although Esclarmonde’s godliness increases in the eyes of others, her own feelings are moving in a different direction:

Gradually, without my even noticing, my attention moved away from the hagioscope to my son and all the people he attracted. God occupied me less than his creatures from now, and I never grew tired of watching them, listening to them, trying to understand what motivated their little brains. I no longer dreaded their judgment, or even that of God. I had not lied, I had merely kept silent about a truth that nobody wanted to hear anyway, and my silence had offered a blank space to be embroidered, an emptiness that everyone had seized on with delight. 

Esclarmonde’s self-questioning over her faith is a recurring theme of The Castle of Whispers. Another is motherhood, and what Elzéar represents you Esclarmonde – whether she’ll be happy to surrender him to the outside world before he grows too large to fit through the window to her cell. A further theme is power: in a world ruled by men, Esclarmonde gains a certain amount of power through her status as an anchor essay. Later on in the novel, she convinces her father to join Frederick Barbarossa’s forces on the Third Crusade; the lord’s young wife Douce, Esclarmonde’s stepmother, rules at home in his stead. The book becomes an exploration of the shifting spaces of male and female power. 

I’m struck by how much The Castle of Whispers encompasses when its protagonist spends most of time confined to a small space. More than that, it’s thoroughly engrossing. After this, I’ll certainly be going back to look at Martinez’s first novel, The Threads of the Heart, and looking out for future books, too. 

Elsewhere 

Stu has reviewed this book over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

The Castle of Whispers (2011) by Carole Martinez, tr. Howard Curtis (2014), Europa Editions, 194 pages, hardback (review copy). 

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane

August is Women in Translation Month, and that’s going to be my main focus on the blog this month. But Spanish Lit Month has also been extended to August (and expanded to cover Portuguese lit) – so I thought I’d start the month off with a book that falls under both headings. 

Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer and academic living and working in New York. Seeing Red is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English. It’s also semi-autobiographical: Meruane’s protagonist has the same name as her; and the book revolves around a medical condition that the author herself lived with. 

It begins at a house party. Lina is on her own in the bedroom when suddenly blood fills her eye: juvenile diabetes had meant that her retinal veins were fragile, and now one has burst. Immediately, Lina starts wondering about the future: is this going to lead to “the dark passage where only anonymous, besieged cries could be heard,” or is there a way out? Lina won’t have any answers until she sees her doctor in a few days, by which time there’s enough blood in her second eye to leave her effectively blind when she moves. The doctor suggests that it may be possible to restore Lina’s sight with an operation – an option she leaps at – but not for another month at least. Much to her consternation, Lina has no choice but to wait. 

Naturally, her sudden sight loss affects Lina’s life in many ways. A flavour of some is given in this passage, where Lina has travelled back to Chile on vacation and is met by her father at the airport:

My father comes to the rescue and pulls me out of my introspection. It’s his bony tourniquet hand that falls onto my shoulder. His debilitated skeleton, his long femur I hold onto. He leans over to kiss my forehead and I extend my fingers to run them over his face, trying to trace his face into my palm. I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s alive in there, inside his body. Then his voice, the word daughter, winds its way through the crush of passengers waiting for suitcases, and in my ear drum his relieved words echo: I had to insist before they’d let me come in and look for you. 
(translation by Megan McDowell) 

Here we have a clamour of sensory information, as well as a laborious process of working it all out, something that’s increasingly familiar to Lina (that wry “professional blind woman” comment). I’ve quoted at some length here because that’s the nature of the book: each chapter is presented as a single long paragraph. This has the effect of bringing the reader down to Lina’s pace, having to work through situations slowly. It also heightens the sense that there’s no escape from Lina’s circumstances, no short cut to recovery – especially in the sections concerning Lina’s treatment, when it’s unclear whether the operation will work, and she has to take extreme care to avoid causing damage while her eyes heal. 
Megan McDowell’s translation is superb, so much rhythm, sound and colour. Here, for example, is Lina in bed with her partner Ignacio:

I started by putting my tongue in a corner of his eyelid, slowly, and as my mouth covered his eyes I felt a savage desire to suck them, hard, to take possession of them on my palate as if they were little eggs or enormous and excited roe, hard, but Ignacio, half-asleep or now half-awake, refused to open them, he refused to give himself to that newly discovered desire, and instead of giving me what I wanted he pushed me back onto the bed and put his tongue in my ear and between my lips although he didn’t dare lick my sick eyes when I asked him to… 

That sentence goes on still further, evoking the slow unwinding of Lina’s desire. There are strong feelings throughout Seeing Red, as Lina’s relationships with her loved ones come under strain, and she fixated on the possibility of a cure for her blindness. Strong feelings on the page turn into an intense experience for the reader; a fine English-language debut for Meruane.

Book details 

Seeing Red (2012) by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell (2016), Deep Vellum Publishing, 162 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The UK edition of Seeing Red is published by Atlantic Books

Women in Translation Month and a Shiny review of The Queue

WITMonth

August is Women in Translation Month, a project started by Meytal of Biblibio, and now in its third year. I haven’t had as much time for reading and blogging this month as I’d wanted (though I still hope to be able to squeeze in a relevant post or two). However, I have been recommending a book each day on Twitter and Facebook, so do feel free to pop over and take a look.

I also have a review of a book by a woman in translation in the August issue of Shiny New Books. The Queue by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette) is the story of a Middle Eastern city where everything needs a permit, and society has rearranged itself around one big queue. The novel is absurd, but also chilling as it reveals just how much of a hold  the authorities have.

Queue

Read my review of The Queue here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette (2016), Melville House UK paperback

High Tide: reading in fragments

The Latvian writer Inga Ābele’s High Tide begins with Ieva ruminating on how fleeting true happiness can be, how thin the veneer on the cold world (you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread”). Then the novel heads back through Ieva’s three decades of life to uncover exactly how she ended up feeling this way. The revelations come – for example, we discover that Ieva’s husband Andrejs was convicted for murder – but the cumulative effect is where Ābele’s novel shines the most for me.

High Tide is told haphazardly – not strictly in reverse chronological order, but something close to that. It goes through a number of different forms and styles: one chapter is entirely in dialogue; one is a series of letters; and so on. One that really struck me is a monologue where we discover that Ieva’s daughter Monta feels distant from her mother and has never been to see her father; the combination of a dense block of text and a breezily informal tone conveys the sense that Monta is desperate to get out of a situation, a state of being, that she may never quite be able to shake off. Kaija Straumanis’ translation is full of these subtle effects.

The overall experience of reading Ābele’s novel, I found, is one of reading in fragments. Because it’s not a smooth reverse-chronological narrative, and because the chapters can’t all be Ieva’s recollections, the book never quite settles into a seamless whole. So one ends up focusing on the individual pieces – appropriately enough, as one senses that this is how Ieva experiences her own life.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

Reading ‘In the Wind’ by Jung Mi-kyung

The first two stories in Jung Mi-kyung’s collection My Son’s Girlfriend were good, but they didn’t prepare me for this…

‘In the Wind’ started innocuously enough, with its narrator looking at the quivering bunch of cells in the Petri dish before her, and wondering if IVF is really what she wants. But then it got under my skin, and I’m still trying to process how and why.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for symbolism and patterning in a story, and ‘In the Wind’ has plenty of those. The would-be embryo looks to the protagonist like a flower, and there are recurring images of petals, and fragile things blowing on the wind. Jung’s narrator also sees the cells as being somewhere between mere existence and ‘life’ proper; and she has similar uncertainties about other things – her own life, her relationships.

But that alone doesn’t account for my response. This is a story that burrowed down into me and wouldn’t be coaxed back out. There’s nothing obviously flashy about Yu Young-nan’s translation from the Korean; but I think that very ordinariness allows the narrator’s doubts to spread and fester, up to that final line: “I shuddered violently at the thought that nothing had changed.”

When I respond strongly to fiction, it’s a visceral reaction. With ‘In the Wind’, this wasn’t a pleasant feeling by any means, and I’ve had to put the book aside for now to read something else. `But still… it was exhilarating – it was what reading is all about for me. So I will be going back… tentatively.

Book details (Publisher link)

My Son’s Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung (2008), tr. Yu Young-nan (2013), Dalkey Archive Press paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

Second Impressions: Alina Bronsky

Much as I like discovering unfamiliar writers, one of the pleasures of reading an author for the second time in particular is that it allows you to start making connections and building a tentative picture of that author’s approach and concerns. The picture might eventually turn out to be inaccurate, but that’s all part of the exploration of reading.

I’ve now read two novels by Alina Bronsky, so I can form a better picture of her work. Vivid narrators are a key element, which is no surprise following the powerful presence of Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but it’s still good to have this underlined. If Marek in Just Call Me Superhero isn’t quite as a strong a presence – well, few would be. Besides, his distance from the reader (from everyone, from himself) is a central part of his nature as a character.

Bronsky also filters reality through the perception of her narrators in striking ways. Rosa is so sure of her self-image that there’s a certain wry humour (and, later, melancholy) in realising that the actuality is rather different. Marek isn’t so much deluded about his situation as too guarded to let others in, including the reader. We’re with him as he crosses the boundaries into unfamiliar territory, and we see his ambivalence about getting closer to someone else.

Here’s hoping, then, for many more interesting characters’ worlds to come from Alina Bronsky.

Book details (Publisher link / Foyles affiliate link)

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2011), Europa Editions paperback

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

To Mervas: inside/outside

This August, Meytal from Biblibio is once again hosting Women in Translation Month; and now – albeit later than I hoped – I can join in. The first book I’ve read for this is To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell (translated from the Swedish by Victoria Häggblom). What I want to talk about here is how R moves between, and reflects, ideas of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

Rynell’s protagonist is Marta, whose diary-within-the-novel begins as she has received a letter from Kosti, her lover of years ago, who says he’s in the remote northern town of Mervas (which, as far as I can tell, is fictional). The whole of the novel’s first part is written as Marta’s diary, and it reveals just how much she has withdrawn into herself, having grown up in a violent household and faced the death of her son.

Marta decides to travel to Mervas and find Kosti; her journey begins in the novel’s second part, and is written in the third person. Suddenly we’re thrown into the outside, both in terms of the backdrop to the action, and the vantage point from which we view Marta. The effect of this is the dazzle of stepping out into daylight.

The third part returns to Marta’s diary, and by now she’s reached Mervas. In this section, inside and outside bleed into each other: Marta’a first-person voice symbolically gains the confidence/authority to narrate her journey through the world; and her time in Mervas becomes a kinetic means for her to address what’s holding her back. Marta has been brought out of herself, and now she can return.

Book details (publisher link)

To Mervas (2002) by Elizabeth Rynell, tr. Victoria Häggblom (2010), Archipelago paperback

"In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows"

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

"The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings"

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

Women in Translation Month: an index of reviews so far

During August, the blogger Biblibio is hosting Women in Translation Month. I’ve been making plans to join in, and aim to have at least four reviews up over the course of the month. But I wanted to start by bringing together all my previous reviews of books in translation by women. I expected that there wouldn’t be many, but it’s still quite sobering to see that there are only 26 from the five-and-a-half years of this blog (I know I haven’t been paying particular attention to books in translation until the last couple of years, but still…).

Anyway: long and short, positive and negative, here they all are…

***

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe)

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)For #WIT

Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated from the German by Tim Mohr)

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds)

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford)

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

Katharina Hagena, The Taste of Apple Seeds (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall (translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

Pia Juul, The Murder of Halland (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicle (translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland)

Natsuo Kirino, Out (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Hanna Krall, Chasing the King of Hearts (translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm)

Rosa Montero, Tears in Rain (translated from the Spanish by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites)

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter)

Susann Pásztor, A Fabulous Liar (translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach)

Simona Sparaco, About Time (translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis)

Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Alissa Walser, Mesmerized (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)

Juli Zeh, Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen)

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

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