Category: French

History, memory, complicity: German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel (tr. Julian Evans)

Is it really so long since I read Brodeck’s Report? I haven’t read Philippe Claudel nearly enough. His latest book in English translation is a cycle of five stories set in 20th century German, exploring themes of history, memory and complicity.

The opening ‘Ein Mann’ sets the tone. It sees a German soldier abandoning his post. We don’t know his name, and the landscape through which he travels is also largely anonymous. He’s been an unthinking cog in the machinery of the Nazi regime: “Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?”

Now that he sees what he has participated in, he wants to get away – he’s not really thinking about where, as long as it’s somewhere else. The ending of the story suggests, however, that he can’t outrun the past.

Recurring throughout the book is the name of Viktor, who may or may not be the same character each time, but always seems to have been an active participant in atrocity. In ‘Ein Mann,’ he’s in charge of the soldier’s concentration camp. In ‘Irma Grese’, though, he’s an old man in a care home in the 1990s, albeit with a past in the regime. 

Irma herself is a girl who’s been given a job in the care home, part of which is specifically to look after Viktor, who happens to be the mayor’s father. Irma resents the job, and resents the pitiful Viktor. She takes out her frustrations on him by eating his food and mistreating him other ways. In an inversion of ‘Ein Mann’, the Viktor of ‘Irma Grese’ is victim rather than oppressor now. But, as Irma will find, there are no real winners in these stories, not in the face of the cruelty that flows through the book.

Elsewhere, Claudel explores the fallibility of memory. In ‘Sex und Linden’, an 90-year-old man looks back on his adolescence, and a time when he was seduced by a beautiful woman who kept whispering another man’s name (‘Viktor’, as it happens). It all sounds a bit too good to be true, and along with the man’s happy memory is a sense that the golden past can’t be recaptured, if it was there in the first place. 

‘Die Kleine’ is the story of a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from a concentration camp, and taken to start a new life in a new household. She pictures the elements of her old life wrapped up in a handkerchief, but this memory is precarious. First, she recalls the old elements in a different way each time. Later, they start to lose their vibrancy:

The handkerchief, folded and tidied away in her brain, held many things but they were things that no longer moved, the way that clothes that have lost the bodies that used to inhabit them still keep a trace of their shape and their smells, but not much. Everything the little girl kept in the handkerchief reminded her of what had happened before, and over there. But over there was gone. There was only here. 

The story which I found to lay down the greatest challenge to the reader was ‘Gnadentod’  – not in the sense of ‘difficulty’ but in its degree of confrontation. In this story, Claudel imagines a version of history in which the German artist Franz Marc did not die in 1916 at Verdun, but was instead placed in an asylum and subjected to a ‘mercy killing’ (to translate the story’s title) by the Nazis in 1940 due to his mental health. 

Then again, maybe that’s just the official line. In one startling sequence, Claudel has Marc’s real-life biographer defending his scholarship in the face of the story’s prevailing fiction. This is a stark experience because we’re seeing fake history being created before our eyes and paraded as the truth.

In various ways throughout German Fantasia, Claudel illustrates how history and memory can be distorted (deliberately or otherwise). He also suggests that his characters are caught in the shadow of German history, no matter where or when they are. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

My favourite books read in 2022

If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.

Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:

12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)

My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read. 

11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’
Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)

A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say. 

10. The Sky Above the Roof (2019) by Nathacha Appanah
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan (2022)

This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work. 

9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf
Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)

These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me. 

8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik
Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)

This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant. 

7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin
Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)

Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing. 

6. Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks

Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page. 

5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)

I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result. 

4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre
Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)

Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose. 

3. Turtle Diary (1975) by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before. 

2. Appliance (2022) by J.O. Morgan

I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection. 

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1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung
Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)

At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.

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That’s my round-up of 2022 – I hope you had a good reading year. Here are my selections from previous years: 2021, 202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

With that, I will leave you until 2023. In the meantime, you can also find me on TwitterInstagram, Facebook and Mastodon – and I’ll see you back here next year.

Héloïse Press: The Memory of the Air by Caroline Lamarche (tr. Katherine Gregor)

The Memory of the Air is a slim volume that confronts an assault, at first obliquely and later directly. Caroline Lamarche’s narrator begins dreaming of a dead woman in a ravine, and resolves to visit her regularly. It seems pretty clear that this is an internal journey for the narrator:

Every morning, I think that everything is going to be all right. Or, on the contrary, that everything is going to go wrong. Either way, I have to go for it: put one foot in front of the other. Depending on the day, the descent into the ravine can be more or less easy.

As the monologue flows back and forth between the narrator’s life and that ravine, we get a sense of her reality growing unstable. She tells us about her relationship with a man she refers to only as” the man before” or “Manfore”. Over time, we see how toxic – indeed, abusive – that relationship was. A remark from Manfore then takes the narrator back further, to finally face what happened to her in the past. 

Katherine Gregor’s translation takes you right into the narrator’s perspective. Reading The Memory of the Air is an intense, harrowing experience. 

Published by Héloïse Press.

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.

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.

MacLehose Press: Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (tr. Frank Wynne)

GauZ’ is a writer from Côte d’Ivoire who spent time working as a security guard in Paris. That’s what his first novel revolves around: ‘standing heavy’ is slang for ” all the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.” The prologue describes how immigrant Black men tend to fall into security guarding: it doesn’t need much experience, employers aren’t too bothered about your official status, and it’s a way to avoid being unemployed or on zero-hours. 

Three main chapters chronicle the changing experiences of three Ivoirian security guards. In the 1960s and 70s, Ferdinand is optimistic even as French immigration policy changes. He feels he has a good job, and contrasts himself with the students in his residence, who (it seems to him) argue a lot but never actually do much. 

By the 1990s, Ossiri and Kassoum are security guards in a Paris that takes their work for granted. “Send money back to the old country,” says a billboard, symbolising how much of an industry has built up around immigration. Ferdinand himself is now part of that industry, running his own business subletting security jobs. But everything will change in the aftermath of 9/11, when even the most menial security work becomes seen as too important to be left to Black men. 

In between the main chapters are collections of snippets which represent the observations and thoughts of a security guard. For example, closing time at a store:

At the door, there is always someone swearing on her mother’s life that she will only need two minutes. The security guard is eyed with contempt when he refuses to grant these two-minute stays of execution. It is difficult to accept being snubbed by those one never notices. Here, everything is on sale, even self-esteem.

There’s a dry wit throughout Standing Heavy, which is really well conveyed in Frank Wynne’s translation. But there’s also a poignant side to the novel. To me, the chapters of fragments suggest a certain openness to the work of security guarding, which is not there in the closing image we have of Kassoum at work. By then, there are openings for Black security guards again, but it’s a much more regimented atmosphere. Standing Heavy presents a panoramic view of its characters’ world – it says so much in a relatively small space. 

Links

Naked Eye Publishing: The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing by Darina Al Joundi

Time for something a little different today: a dramatic monologue. Darina Al Joundi is a Lebanese writer and actor now living in France. She first performed this one-woman play in 2007. She co-wrote a novel based on the play which has previously been translated into English, but this is the first English translation of the play itself. The translator is Helen Vassallo, who runs the excellent blog Translating Women (she’s written a post here on how she came to translate the play. 

Al Joundi’s protagonist is Noun, whose father was a secular freedom fighter in a strict Muslim family. She interrupts his funeral, locking herself in the room with his body. She is there to carry out his wish to have Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ played at his funeral, rather than recitations from the Qu’ran. The monologue is Noun’s reflection on her life in Beirut, and on her father’s influence. 

Noun’s father encouraged her to live as she wanted, and didn’t judge her. In turn, she looked up to him. For example, as a girl Noun tells her father that she wants to wear a bra. He warns her that she’ll find it painful and constricting, but she insists and he goes along with her wishes. Noun soon discovers that he was right.

There is humour running through Noun’s story, but she also experiences great violence – both personally and as part of the war escalating around her. In time, she has cause to question whether her father appreciated how free his daughter might really be in a society that didn’t share his values. Noun comes across as a vivid, complex character in this thought-provoking piece of work. 

Published by Naked Eye Publishing.

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland

Originally published in French in 1977, this is a travelogue by Togolese writer Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated by James Kirkup). As a teenager in the 1950s, he is (reluctantly) about to be initiated into a snake cult when he reads a book about Greenland. This place is beyond anything he has experienced or can imagine, but there will be no snakes – and, he reads, “the child is king, free from all traditional and family restraint”. This is enough to make the young Kpomassie resolve to travel to Greenland, even though it means running away from home.

Kpomassie’s journey to Greenland is an epic tale in itself. It takes six years for him to earn enough money to leave Africa, followed by a spell working in Paris before he finally reaches his destination. He stands out, not just for his skin colour but also his height (hence he’s nicknamed Michel the Giant). This will be a two-way meeting of cultures: “I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered.”

Kpomassie’s book is a fascinating account of his travels. There are telling details, such as the cinema that stops foreign films every ten minutes to explain the action to the Inuit audience, because only Danish subtitles are available. These episodes are mixed with Kpomassie’s broader reflections on the people he encounters. His openness and willingness to meet Greenland on its own terms are what make Michel the Giant so engaging for me.

Published by Penguin Modern Classics.

MacLehose Press: The Sky Above the Roof by Nathacha Appanah (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)

I’m intrigued by the way that the brevity of a short novel can bring a distinctive feel to familiar subject matter. One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel springs to mind here, the way it puts a toxic family relationship into extreme close-up by removing all but the most essential detail. 

Another example is The Sky Above the Roof, the latest novel to appear in English by Mauritian-French author Nathacha Appanah. It revolves around three characters who are all, in some way, ill at ease in the world. We begin with young Wolf in the back of a police van. He drove on the wrong side of the road, there was a crash, and now here we are. To an outside observer, Wolf may just seem a boy who doesn’t pay attention. In fact, though his mind mixes up times and memories of events, his mechanical instinct is something else. His mother thinks of him like this:

…a boy who does not have a licence and cannot catch a bus on his own, suffers from anxiety attacks and can go for days without speaking. One who has magic fingers and can repair little things when they break down (hairdryer, telephone, power drill), his gaze acting like a scanner and detecting where the fault lies. He who can run round and round the house for two hours without stopping, is afraid of the hollow in the garden and, now, does not want to see her.

At the time of the crash, Wolf was driving to visit his sister Paloma, who walked out years ago. Paloma is someone who hides on the sidelines of life. Then there’s the siblings’ mother, who was named Eliette as a girl, and hated the way her parents made her dress up and sing – which is to say nothing of where that led. She made a life for herself as an adult, changing her appearance and calling herself Phoenix. She also made sure that she wouldn’t constrict her children in the way her parents did with her – but, as we see, not everything turns out as intended. 

The Sky Above the Roof has 130 pages and encompasses this family’s immediate history, as well as Wolf’s brief (though still harrowing) stay in the remand centre. It seems to me that the novel loses some nuance of cause and effect through its brevity: sometimes it feels as though upbringing is the be-all and end-all. But its shortness also brings Appanah’s book intensity, making it a string of set-pieces with that swirling prose in Geoffrey Strachan’s fine translation. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

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