Author: David Hebblethwaite

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.

#InternationalBooker2024: and the winner is…

Once again, the official International Booker judges and the shadow panel have diverged. We chose Not a River as our shadow winner, but the official winner is:

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)

Congratulations to them, and thanks as always to my fellow shadow panellists. I wonder what next year will bring…

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

#InternationalBooker2024: the shadow panel’s winner

Right then, it’s time… The official winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced tonight, but there’s our shadow panel winner to reveal first. We selected our own shortlist of five, and ranked them individually to award scores of 8 points, 5, 3, 2, and 1.

With a grand total of 56 points, our 2024 shadow winner is…

Not a River by Selva Almada, tr. Annie McDermott (Charco Press)

We also want to give honourable mentions to Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Michael Hofmann (Granta Books), our runner-up with 51 points; and White Nights by Urszula Honek, tr. Kate Webster (MTO Press), which came third with 40 points. We were sorry that White Nights didn’t make the official shortlist, so we’re pleased to give it this recognition.

On to the official winner: will it match our choice, or not?

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

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: the shadow panel’s shortlist

Here goes, it’s time to reveal our shadow panel’s shortlist for the International Booker. This year, for the first time, we have a shortlist of only five:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • White Nights by Urszula Honek, translated from Polish by Kate Webster (MTO Press)
  • The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky (Europa Editions UK)

For more on our decision to shortlist five titles instead of six, see Tony’s post on the shadow shortlist.

We’ll announce our shadow winner before the official winner is revealed on 21 May.

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

#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: the official shortlist

The official shortlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Scribe UK)
  • What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey (Scribe UK)
  • Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Verso Fiction)

I am still working through the longlist myself, so I don’t have a final opinion yet. But I am sure that at least three of these (Not a River, Kairos and Crooked Plow) will end up on my own personal shortlist. On the other hand, Mater 2-10 struggles to hold my attention whenever I try to read it. Different books for different readers, I guess.

The Shadow Panel will be revealing our own shortlist in a couple of weeks.

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