TagWomen in Translation Month

Violeta among the Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso: Women in Translation Month

At the start of this novel, Violeta has accidentally driven off the road during a storm. Her car rolled down an embankment, and now she’s hanging upside down:

[…] the rain beats down on the car roof with a noise that should scare me, it thickens the car windows, doubles them, thousands of burst drops against the glass, watery webs torn apart by the wind, gusts of wind reaching speeds of up to, I defy the stormy night,

I drive through the darkness

my hand blindly seeking a voice that will calm the storm, lightning, a trace of light from the beginning, in the beginning there was only light, in the beginning there was only light and we were already blinded forever, 

Translation from Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

This is what Violeta’s narration is like: fragmented, no full stops, frequent interjections, and often repeated phrases. It’s a superb translation by Gurría-Quintara, that throws you into the chaos of Violeta’s mind as she thinks over her life, looping back again and again. 

Violeta sells hair-removal products: she describes body hair as her enemy (partly because she’s ill at ease with her own body). On the particular day of her accident, Violeta had sold her deceased parents’ home, which didn’t go down well with her daughter Dora. As Violeta’s recollections go further back, we gain more context for her relationship with Dora, and see how her parents ended up on the wrong side of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. 

By novel’s end, Violeta is facing up to the inevitable, and we’ve borne witness to a multifaceted view of her character and life. Cardoso’s telling makes Violeta seem a whole person to us, good points and bad. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon: Women in Translation Month

When it comes to an event like Women in Translation Month, I usually pick out a few titles in advance that I want to read. But I also like to leave some room for serendipity, like this Israeli novel. I found it while searching through a box of books, had no memory of it… Then I read the blurb, and wanted to read it straight away. 

(I’ve since worked out that I got it through an old Asymptote Book Club subscription.)

It’s supposed to be the day of Marie’s and Matti’s wedding, but there’s a problem: Margie has locked herself in her room, and is repeating “Not getting married” over and over again. The novel focuses on the couple’s families and their attempts to get through to Margie. 

There’s a wry sense of humour throughout Matalon’s book, and the imagery is often striking. For example, this is from the first couple of pages:

And so they simply continued to stare at the shut door with its old-fashioned dark wood veneer, seemingly anticipating a thawing, a softening, miraculous melting–if not of the bride then at least of the door–and hoping for something further: a continuation of the sentence [i.e. “Not gettiing married”], an idea or a word that might emerge through the door like the wet head of a newborn closely followed by the body itself sliding out.

Translation from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I found that comparison to a newborn baby quite startling, and a little uncomfortable, to imagine in context. The novel’s characters are similarly caught off-guard: the only real clue Margie gives them to her state of mind is a section of Lea Goldberg’s poem ‘The Prodigal Son’, adapted to become ‘The Prodigal Daughter’.

And the Bride Closed the Door was Ronit Matalon’s last novel, winning the Brenner Prize the day before the author died in 2017. Reading around a bit, it seems clear that there are reflections on Israeli society in the novel that I wouldn’t have picked up on. Even without that, I found Matalon’s book an intriguing and entertaining character portrait.

Published by New Vessel Press.

Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová: Women in Translation Month

The book and the reading both start out innocuously enough: Blanka, a young Slovak woman, takes a summer job in Marseille, at the Bellevue centre for people with physical disabilities. Her main reason for applying is the chance to practise her French in an immersive environment. She doesn’t really seem to have considered the work involved, and that’s where her problems start. 

The environment of Bellevue is indeed immersive, but not in the way Blanka may have been thinking. She really struggles to be around the disabled people at the centre, to cope with people unable to look after themselves. To an extent, she struggles to see them as people. 

There are gradual signs that Blanka’s mental health is being affected: a panic attack, then this… 

…deep inside I had always known it, sensed it, but now I could suddenly give it a name, was able to articulate it, the words now pounded right in my chest, we all hate each other, suddenly nothing but this truth, this knowledge, or rather the realisation that there’s nothing but hatred in this world, that to grow up means to understand and accept all the world’s hatred directed at every single person, and therefore also at me.

Translation from Slovak by Julia & Peter Sherwood

As the novel goes on, we come to understand more of Blanka’s background, and see her continue to unravel. This is particularly harrowing because Blanka doesn’t articulate what is happening to her. Dobrakovová (in the Sherwoods’ superb translation) shows it through the changing shape of Blanka’s language: her narration frays along with her mental state. We go directly to the heart of Blanka’s experience, and the effect is powerful. 

Published by Jantar Publishing.

The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian: Women in Translation Month

I’ve had this book (originally published in Chinese in 2005) on my shelves for a few years, and finally took the time to read it. I’m glad I did. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon is set among the Evenki people, reindeer herders of north-eastern China. The narrator is a ninety-year-old woman, who doesn’t reveal her name because she doesn’t want traces of herself to be left behind. Most of her clan are moving permanently to the town, leaving their nomadic lives behind. She remains, telling her story to “the fire and the rain”. 

When the narrator is growing up, it’s clear how much her people’s lifestyle is shaped by the landscape:

But we were unable to leave this river. We always treated it as our centre, living alongside its many tributaries. If the Argun is the palm of a hand, then its tributaries are five open fingers. They extend in different directions, illuminating our lives like flashes of lightning. 

Translation by Bruce Humes

There are vivid descriptions of place throughout Chi’s novel. As a whole, the book is structured around changes in the narrator’s family, set against the broader movement of history and encounters with outside cultures. Throughout, there is the sense of just how precarious is the Evenkis’ traditional culture. The story always comes back to the personal, but Chi makes clear how much is really at stake. 

Published by Vintage Books.

The Therapist by Helene Flood: Women in Translation Month

It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal at BIblibio. This year I’m starting in Norway, with a splendidly twisty thriller translated by Alison McCullough. 

Psychologist Sara thinks nothing of it when her husband Sigurd leaves a voicemail letting her know that he’s arrived at the cabin for a holiday with his friends. She changes her mind when Sigurd’s friends ring her that night, wondering why he hasn’t turned up at the cabin. Then Sigurd’s body is found with two bullets in the back, and life will never be the same again. 

I enjoyed reading The Therapist, partly for the game of working out what’s really going on. This is well handled by Flood: I didn’t work it out, but with hindsight I feel I could have. Sara’s job also sets up a neat parallel: professionally, she tries to understand what people are thinking and why; now she’s having to do the same with someone close to her. It’s well worth going along on the journey. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

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.

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