AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

Women in Translation Month: Completing Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy with The Proof and The Third Lie

Ágota Kristóf (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who lived in exile in Switzerland, and wrote in French, In 2014, I read The Notebook, her novel about twin boys driven to acts of cruelty in wartime and after. The brothers don’t allow themselves to express emotion, and the specifics of geography and time are diluted. I found the effect powerfully austere.

The Notebook is a complete experience in itself, but it’s also the first part of a trilogy. I’d always intended to read the rest, and now I have. It’s interesting to see how each volume casts the previous one in a different light.

The Notebook ended with the brothers separated: one crossed the border into a neighbouring country, the other stayed behind. This was, in its way, impossible to imagine, as the boys had narrated as one ‘we’ throughout. The Proof (tr. David Watson) picks the story up with the brother who returned home. Now, we learn his name: Lucas. This alone makes him seem more human and approachable, and we see Lucas trying to adjust to life alone, developing relationships with others and becoming an adult.

But it’s not as simple as that. Kristóf’s prose is as sparse as in The Notebook, creating a stark emotional distance. Lucas is still capable of cruelty, and there are times when we sense he’s being deeply affected by all he has been through – but he won’t let it show, and we can’t get close enough to him to really understand how he feels.

Geography and time are again flattened out, which heightens the sense of being trapped: years pass, yet everything feels essentially the same. But things are about to change when Lucas’s brother Claus finally returns, and suddenly what we’ve read is called into question.

The Third Lie (tr. Marc Romano) goes even further in breaking identities down. At the start, it is narrated by Claus, then at times appears to be narrated by Lucas, and at other times it’s not clear at all. Scenes from The Notebook are retold in a different form that challenge our fundamental assumptions: were there ever two brothers at all?

What I get most from Kristóf’s trilogy as a whole is the sense of being ultimately unable to reach the truth of what happened to its characters. There is great trauma in the background, yet it’s all words on paper in the end – and that, to me, is what gives the trilogy its power.

CB Editions publish a single-volume edition of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy.

Fly on the Wall Press: Man at Sea by Liam Bell

The third novel by Scottish writer Liam Bell is an intriguing historical tale. Stuart was disfigured during the war when his plane caught fire in Malta. He’s long harboured a secret love for Beth, the nurse from his convalescence. In 1961, Beth contacts Stuart because she wants to go to Malta and find Joe, the son of her late husband Victor. Stuart is happy to accompany her, not just for the chance to spend time with Beth, but also because he may be able to take revenge on the man who caused his burns.

A second plot strand follows young Joe in 1941, as his childhood games are interrupted by the news that his father has left the family behind while serving overseas. Back in 1961, it doesn’t take too long for Stuart and Beth to find Joe, but there are revelations to come – not least that Victor is apparently still alive.

I enjoyed reading Man at Sea: it’s briskly paced and evocatively written. Nothing is quite as it seems, so there is plenty to uncover in a relatively short space. Bell’s characters have to face the question of whether it’s better to hold on to the past or let go. They come to something of a conclusion on that question in a quietly poignant ending.

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

Holland House Books: The Bellboy by Anees Salim

Anees Salim is an author from Kerala who’s had several books published in India over the last ten years. Now, Newbury’s Holland House Books are publishing him in the UK, with Salim’s latest novel, The Bellboy.

17-year-old Latif lives on an island, but now has a job on the mainland, as a bellboy at a hotel named Paradise Lodge. He quickly discovers that this is a place people come to end their lives: on his first day, he watches the manager walk into the room of a guest who still hangs from the ceiling, and pocket the dead man’s cash – only then calling the police. It sets the tone for a job that’s going to change Latif’s life drastically.

When Latif travels between home and work, he’s effectively travelling between two different worlds – neither of which is all that it seems. People don’t generally go to Paradise Lodge for a holiday, as you’d generally expect with a hotel. They go for secret reasons, such as to conduct affairs or take their own lives. Latif’s home island is sinking, but it’s something the inhabitants can put out of their mind if they wish, because the ecologist working there doesn’t speak their language, and the danger is still some way into the future.

So neither of Latif’s world’s has the most stable subjective reality. Adding to this, Latif will invent stories for the Paradise Lodge janitor, Stella, telling her about non-existent people from his village – notably Ibru, who serves as a kind of alter-ego for Latif, someone who can do what he can’t, or won’t admit to.

It’s quite an experience seeing Latif change as he rides the currents of life (or is overwhelmed by them). Here’s hoping we see more of Anees Salim’s work in the UK before too long.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

My short Mexican season begins with a debut novel that came out in the early 2010s, just before I really started paying attention to translated fiction. It’s just been reissued as a Granta Edition, so now was a good chance to catch up.

Faces in the Crowd is narrated in fragments, a life (or lives) that won’t be pieced together easily. Valeria Luiselli’s narrator is a young woman who contrasts her current family life in Mexico City with her earlier, freer life in literary New York. That earlier life is now so far removed that it might as well be another world:

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses 

Translation from spanish by Christina macsweeney

The narrator is writing a novel of her life, and the question arises of what we can trust to be ‘true’. She tells outlandish tales, such as the time she fabricated an entire manuscript to get a New York publisher interested in the (historical) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen. Not to mention that she kept seeing Owen’s ghost.

On top of this, the narrator’s husband reads and comments on the novel-in-progress, adding a further layer of fiction. Then there are passages apparently narrated by Gilberto Owen, who catches glimpses of a mysterious young woman…

In the end, perhaps nothing in this novel can really be trusted – which is what makes it such a rush to read.

A Mexican selection for July

July means Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month hosted by Stu. I’ve been joining in since 2016, but this year I thought I’d have a theme. Since I started reading translated fiction regularly, some of my favourite books have come from Mexico. I’ve found a few unread Mexican books at home, so they’re what I’m planning to concentrate on this month.

To start things off, though, here’s a look back on some Mexican highlights from past years of the blog…

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa Dillman). Possibly my favourite of all Mexican novels that I’ve read. A crossing over the Mexico-US border becomes a literal descent into the underworld, in a vivid tale of blurred boundaries and thresholds.

Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud (tr. the author). A novel that breaks down the distinction between memory and reality, imagination and physical space. Mildew starts to grow over Constanza’s body on the day before her daughter’s wedding – does she have control over the story she’s telling?

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (tr. Natasha Wimmer). The tale of a cosmic tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, spliced with accounts of a world being formed in the cauldron of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr. Rosalind Harvey). My introduction to Mexican fiction (and one of the key books introducing me to contemporary translated fiction in general). A drug baron’s son gets his wish to travel to Liberia for a pet hippo – and his perspective transforms what we understand.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker). More blurred boundaries in a story of mysterious visitors that treats social marginalisation as contagious.

Well, looking those up has got me excited for reading more… Do you have any favourite Mexican books?

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel was first published in 1988. It’s set during an office worker’s lunch hour, and consists of his lengthy thoughts on the minutiae of life, such as why both his shoelaces snapped in quick succession (were stresses caused by tying the laces, or by the laces rubbing against the eyeholes of his shoes?). 

To give you a flavour of the prose, here the protagonist imagines what will happen after he’s bought a rubber address stamp, paid his bills, and taken some chairs for recaning:

Molten rubber was soon to be poured into backward metal letters that spelled my name and address; blind people were making clarinetists’ finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair, gauging distances and degrees of tautness; somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of Tandem computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in my name was being overwritten with a new magnetic record that corresponded to a figure diminished to the penny by the amount that I had a written out in hasty felt-tip pen on my checks…

The technology fixes Baker’s novel in time to an extent, but in an intriguing way. The protagonist is fixated on the workings of mechanical systems, and of course this is a time when office work is full of them, right down to the frequent use of staplers. There is a real sense of the character interacting with his environment, because what he’s thinking is inevitably tied to the physicality of things. 

I’ve been trying to decide whether The Mezzanine is poking fun at its protagonist’s obsessions, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes it all seems over the top, such as when the character is deciding on the most politic spot to sign his name on a get-well card (not too close to the boss’s name!). Sometimes I just think, this guy is enthusiastic and interested, so good for him. 

Maybe it’s there in the book’s title. The character’s office is on the mezzanine, so when he travels up the escalator, his destination is only part-way up and no further. Looked at another way, he’s found his level, and seems happy with it. Whichever, I’m glad I spent time in his world. 

Published in Granta Editions.

Mid-Year Book Freakout tag

We are coming up to halfway through the year, which is a pretty good time to take stock. For various reasons I haven’t read as much as I usually would (partly through getting stricter at abandoning books, partly through taking more time), but let’s have a look anyway. I found this set of questions on Nina Allan’s blog; here are my answers:

Best book you’ve read so far in 2022. I would have to say Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur), a story collection which had me from the first page to the last. Chung goes straight on to my list of must-read authors.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2022. Well, Marseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (tr. Helen Vassallo) is the only actual sequel I’ve read this year. It’s very good, but also kind of a default answer to this question. Perhaps I could add J.O. Morgan’s second novel, Appliance. This is not a sequel to Pupa, but it is definitely a companion piece aesthetically. I will be reviewing Appliance for Strange Horizons, but I can tell you now that it’s excellent.

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. The first book that comes to mind is Life Ceremony, the forthcoming story collection by another of my must-read authors, Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori). I also can’t leave out Malarkoi, Alex Pheby’s sequel to the wonderful Mordew – sure to be a treat.

Biggest disappointment. I’m chary of calling books disappointments these days, because I know from personal experience that it can be that you’ve just caught a book at the wrong time. So I will say that I’d been looking forward to reading Damon Galgut for the first time, and I was disappointed that I didn’t click with In a Strange Room. Maybe another book, another time. 

Biggest surprise. I’m going to say Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy – not because I didn’t expect to like it (I did), but because it was not on my radar at all until I found it in the publisher’s catalogue.

Favourite new author – debut or new to you. Bora Chung, Russell Hoban, Geetanjali Shree, J.O. Morgan, Nathacha Appanah.

Book that made you cry. I don’t know that any book has made me cry so far this year. Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs changed how it felt to look out at the world from inside my head. 

The most beautiful book you’ve bought so far. Henningham Family Press always publish beautiful books. The Lost Spell by Yismake Worku (tr. Bethlehem Attfield) is no exception. 

What books do you need to read by the end of the year? Well, the beauty of it is that I don’t need to read anything by the end of the year. What I might like to read is another matter…

Looking ahead, July will be Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, for which I plan to catch up on some unread Mexican books that I have. August is Women in Translation Month, and perhaps it’s time for me to read the rest of Agota Kristof’s trilogy, after The Notebook (tr. Alan Sheridan). Later on will be the 1929 Club, which would give me a pretext to read Henry Green’s Living and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (tr. Basil Creighton). There’s also the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist to come… That’s plenty to be going on with, I think. 

Naked Eye Publishing: Marseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (tr. Helen Vassallo)

This dramatic monologue is the follow-up to Darina Al Joundi’s The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, which I wrote about earlier in the year. Once again, the translator is Helen Vassallo of the excellent Translating Women blog. 

In Marseillaise My Way, Al Joundi’s protagonist Noun has left Beirut to make a new life for herself in France. As in the earlier play, a song runs through the piece, representing Noun’s situation. Before it was Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’, which underlined Noun’s complex relationship with her father. Here it’s the Marseillaise, which Noun has to be able to sing as part of her French citizenship test. 

Noun is uneasy about the words and often sings off-key. This represents a wider ambivalence that she feels towards France. She chose France because she thought it was the kind of secular country where she could have the freedoms she was denied in Lebanon. Yet she sees women and girls in France choosing to wear the veil and burka, and she can’t understand why. Experiences like this lead Noun to reflect on the Arab women who fought for freedom in the past. 

The obstacles to Noun gaining citizenship keep piling up, as she has to navigate a maze of bureaucracy. But she remains determined to get there, to sing the Marseillaise her way. Her story is compelling. 

Published by Naked Eye Publishing.

Lanny by Max Porter

In the countryside near London stirs Dead Papa Toothwort, a nature spirit who moves through the different layers of life in the village, and revels in the music of human voices. These curl and overlap strikingly on the page:

Lanny is a dreamy young boy from the village with a wild imagination. Many people can’t work him out, as we hear from his parents, a commuter and novelist who are recent arrivals from the city. We also hear from Pete, a local artist who spends time with Lanny, and seems more on his wavelength than most. 

Papa Toothwort understands Lanny, though: he sees that here is someone with an affinity for nature – someone who would respect the deep tales of old, rather than treating them as tourist fodder. As the novel’s first part ends, Toothwort decides the time has come to reassert himself – and Lanny goes missing. 

The second section is my favourite part of the book, as the prose turns into a collage of voices echoing Toothwort’s passages in the first part. Max Porter explores not just the relationship between his village community and the natural world, but also relations within the village – for example, the way suspicion soon falls (unwarranted) on Pete.

The theatrical third part turns to the question of what Lanny means to those closest to him – whether they’ll be honest about it or not. It’s the feelings in Lanny that remain strongest in my mind, the way emotions twist and unpeel as the novel goes on. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

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