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What I’ve been reading lately: a Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month special

First up, a novel from Colombia. The Children by Carolina Sanín (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. MacLehose Press) is the tale of Laura, who creates a slippery fiction of her life as a form of protection, for example by giving a different answer whenever someone asks what her dog is called. One night, six-year-old Fidel turns up outside her house, a boy with no apparent history. She takes him in for the night, then to child welfare services the next day – but, before long, she finds herself wanting to know what has happened to him. This is a strange and elusive story, where reality may be reconfigured even as we look at it.

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (tr. Jethro Soutar, pub. Dedalus) is the first novel from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It begins with teenage Ndani becoming a housekeeper for a white family, then circles around her life and others’, including a village chief with ambitions to stand up to the local Portuguese administrator, and the black schoolteacher whom Ndani falls in love with. Silá’s principal characters each step into white society in various ways; the author examines the implications for them of doing so, and how colonial attitudes could be challenged and perpetuated at the same time. The prose is a joy to read.

Umami by Laia Jufresa (tr. Sophie Hughes, pub. Oneworld) is set in a Mexico City mews of five houses, each named after one of the basic tastes. It begins in 2004, three years after her sister drowned, even though she could swim. Five narrative strands unfold in turn, each from a different viewpoint, told in a different voice, and set a year before the previous one. That structure sets up a rhythm which keeps the pages turning. Gradually, the secrets of the mews’s residents are revealed, with an ever-growing sense of being drawn into the implacable past.

Who Among Us? was the first novel (originally published in 1953) by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, but it’s the third to appear in English translation (tr. Nick Caistor, pub. Penguin Modern Classics). Miguel, Alicia and Lucas have known each other since school. Miguel and Alicia married each other, but Miguel has come to realise that Alicia prefers Lucas. So much so, in fact, that Miguel persuades Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires, where she can meet Lucas again. The tale of this love triangle is narrated by each character in turn, and in a different form: a journal written by Miguel, a letter from Alicia to him, a short story by Lucas (with footnotes outlining where he has adapted reality). The characters’ different perceptions emerge as the book progresses, and maybe there’s even an objective truth in there… or maybe not.

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

A Simple Story – Leila Guerriero

After a look back, it’s time for my first ‘new’ post for this year’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story is a piece of journalism from Argentina. Every year in the town of Laborde, young working-class men compete to be crowned champion of the malambo, a physically-demanding traditional dance. Custom dictates that the winner must never perform the malambo again – but the prestige he’ll gain is unparalleled.

Guerriero says in the book that she set out to write about the malambo competition in general, but that changed when she saw Rodolfo González Alcántara dance:

He became the countryside, the dry earth, the taut pampas horizon, he was the smell of horses, the sound of the sky in summer, and the hum of solitude – fury, illness, and war. He became the opposite of peace. He was the slashing knife, the cannibal, and a decree. At the end he stamped his foot with terrific force and stood, covered in stars, resplendent, staring through the peeling layers of night air. And, with a sidelong smile – like that of a prince, a vagabond, or a demon – he touched the brim of his hat, And was gone.
(translation by Thomas Bunstead)

A Simple Story then follows Rodolfo as he trains for the 2012 Laborde festival. Though the two books are quite different, I was reminded of Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot, which captures a similar sense of physicality and all-consuming determination.

If you’d like to see Rodolfo dancing the malambo, here’s a clip.

Book details

A Simple Story (2013) by Leila Guerriero, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback.

Ten books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month

I don’t know quite where half the year has gone, but it’s July, which means it is Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (hosted this year by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog). I look forward to this month, because I invariably come across some great books. I thought I would start by taking a look back through my archives. Here are ten recommendations (six translated from Spanish, two from Portuguese, one from Basque, one from Catalan), with links to my reviews…

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Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (Basque Country), tr. Elizabeth Macklin – A novel about the history of its author’s fishing family, lives that grow larger in the telling.

I Didn’t Talk by Beatriz Bracher (Brazil), tr. Adam Morris – A retiring academic who survived torture by the military dictatorship in the 1970s reflects on the impossibility of telling a coherent story about the past.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (Brazil), tr. Alison Entrekin – A classic tale of childhood chronicling the adventures of a charming young protagonist, which carries a poignant sting at the end.

Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernández Cubas (Spain), tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts – Six eerie stories of unstable reality.

No-one Loves a Policeman by Guillermo Orsi (Argentina), tr. Nick Caistor – An ex-policeman is framed for murder in a novel that presents its world as an intractable puzzle of corruption which resists attempts to be solved.

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (Chile), tr. Megan McDowell – The story of a woman who loses her sight suddenly, then finds herself having to work life out anew.

The Slaughter Yard by Esteban Echeverría (Argentina), tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe – The oldest piece of Argentine prose fiction this is the story of a young man killed by a mob for his political beliefs. A tale of powerful imagery and metaphor.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Catalonia), tr. Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell – The tumult of early 20th century history, experienced through one woman’s ordinary (yet extraordinary) life.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (Mexico), tr. Natasha Wimmer – A tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, played across the sweep of early modern history.

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Dueñas (Spain), tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García – A highly enjoyable historical yarn that moves from Mexico to Cuba and then Spain, as a miner who’s set to lose everything tries his best to stay afloat.

Empty Words – Mario Levrero: a Splice review

After Plume, here’s my second review of the week for Splice. Empty Words (tr. Annie McDermott) is the first novel by the late Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero to appear in English. A synopsis does not necessarily sound like much: it’s written as a series of handwriting exercises, alongside a longer discourse that its protagonist writes, trying (and largely failing) to keep content at bay. There’s more going on than meets the eye: I learnt a lot about the book through the process of reviewing. In the end, it’s the narrator’s attempt to take control of his own life and world.

Read my review of Empty Words here.

Book details

Empty Words (1996) by Mario Levrero, tr. Annie McDermott (2019), And Other Stories, 152 pages, paperback.

The US edition is published by Coffee House Press.

An individual without centre: Nocilla Lab by Agustín Fernández Mallo

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a physicist who, in his Nocilla Trilogy, has been writing the universe as understood by contemporary science into novel form. Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience are structured as networks of themes, images and ideas, without a traditional anchor-point around which to revolve. Now here’s the third part of the trilogy, Nocilla Lab, which takes what Dream and Experience did with the world at large and applies it to notions of individual identity – in this novel, it’s the protagonist who is without centre.

First off, let me say that this is a brilliant translation by Thomas Bunstead: Nocilla Lab is divided into four sections, each written in a distinct style, yet with subtle interplay between them. The first part is (bar a few quoted passages) written as a single sentence over seventy pages. In this section, the narrator (Fernández Mallo himself, or a version of him) describes visiting Sardinia with his girlfriend, to work on what he refers to mysteriously as their “Project” (which they later abandon). The narration here is propulsive and disorienting all at once, looping back on itself and weaving together past and future. But there’s also a certain rawness to it, a sense that these are thoughts coming straight from the narrator’s mind.

This section also summarises what I think of as Nocilla Lab‘s key theme, the fundamental similarity of things and people:

…one travels to different countries and sees there very different things flora- and fauna-wise, customs- and appearances-wise, all the things that distinguish races and cultures, and yet, sooner or later, one comes to the undeniable conclusion or formulation of what might even be a law, namely that everything, looked at in sufficient detail, is identical to its counterpart on the far side of the world: zoom in and the leaf of a scrub plant in Sardinia is the same as that of an Alaskan pine tree, the skin pores of a Sudanese person are identical to those of an Inuit, and there really is nothing between a Buddha figure in Bangkok and a statuette of Christ in Despeñaperos, Jaén, and so it is with everything…

One of the ways this theme plays out in Nocilla Lab is by undermining the idea of the protagonist as an individual with a coherent identity. The novel’s second part takes place in recognisably the same situation as its first, with (one is given to assume) the same characters. But the prose is more conventionally novelistic, which makes this section feel different – more distant, more settled. The narrator and his girlfriend come across an old prison which has been turned into an eco-hotel (albeit mainly so the proprietor can keep himself to himself, rather than with the intention of having many guests). What initially may seem quirky turns darker when the hotel owner claims to be named Agustín Fernández Mallo, and working on a Project similar to the narrator’s.

Up to now, the events of Nocilla Lab could pretty much have passed for real life, but this… this is the sort of thing that happens in a novel, so it’s only fitting that it’s related in prose that reads like a novel. But this turn of events also raises the question: who is the narrator? Can we trust him to be the same individual in the second part as he was in the first? This question becomes even more pointed in the novel’s third section, a typed manuscript, because here the narrator has assumed the hotelier’s identity and apparently let go of his own previous one. There’s continuity of narrative between the novel’s parts, but the sense of a single ‘I’ behind it dissolves.

The form taken by each of Nocilla Lab‘s sections also moves us progressively further away from the narrator. By the fourth part, we’re firmly on the outside looking in, at a comic strip. The protagonist here looks like Fernández Mallo, though when asked who he is, he replies, “Not sure.” This individual travels to an oil rig where he meets the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who tells a story. Two men hear similar noises: one is being kept awake by his watch, the other a prisoner about to be set free. The same thing means something very different depending on the context – rather like the narrator, who changes with the scene, until he disappears within versions of himself.

Elsewhere

I must mention MacKenzie Warren’s excellent review of Nocilla Lab at Splice, which helped clarify some of my thinking here.

Book details

Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2018), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 192 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

My favourite books read in 2018

By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.

As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.

You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.

12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)

I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.

11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)

The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.

10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash

This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.

9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)

This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.

8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)

A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.

7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)

Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.

6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)

My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.

5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark

Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.

4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood

Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.

3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)

I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.

2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power

Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.

1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)

A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.

Round-up: Aussie crime and famous teeth

I’m trying out different ways of writing about books, because I was getting a bit tired of the cycle of read, review, read, review. I’d like my blogging to be more responsive to how I read: to group things together, zoom in and out, make connections, and so on. This is one post format that I’m going to try out: a round-up of shorter comments on a few books that I’ve read. We start this round-up with a couple of Australian crime novels…

Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident explores the aftermath of a young woman’s murder in a small Australian town through the eyes of two characters: the victim’s older sister, and a journalist sent to cover the story. Where you might normally expect a mystery to give a sense of progressing towards a solution, there’s a void at the centre of Maguire’s mystery, which fills up withmore and more uncertainty. It’s engrossing stuff, with a strong narrative voice.

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic is the sequel to Resurrection Bay, once again featuring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic. This novel begins with a young woman dying in front of Caleb moments after she has sought him out, and sees the protagonist follow her trail to his home town. He becomes caught up in the local drug trade as he tries to find out who the woman was and why she wanted to find him. Like its predecessor, And Fire Came Down is briskly told with plenty of intrigue in plot and character.

From Australia to Mexico: The Story of My Teeth (tr. Christina MacSweeney) is the first book I’ve read by Valeria Luiselli. It’s narrated by one Gustavo Sánchez, an auctioneer who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, then auctions off the old ones by making out that they belonged to famous people. Then it gets stranger… I found this book great fun to read: tricksy and playful, with a serious exploration of how the meaning of an object (such as a tooth) shifts when you change the context. After this, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Luiselli’s work.

Book details

An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire, Lightning Books, 320 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

And Fire Came Down (2017) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 344 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Story of My Teeth (2013) by Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2015), Granta Books, 196 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Fish Soup – Margarita García Robayo

Here’s one last book for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months and Women in Translation Month. It’s the English-language debut of Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo: a compendium of short fiction translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based Charco Press, who specialise in Latin American literature. It’s a wonderfully sardonic set of stories.

Fish Soup is bookended by two novellas. In the first, Waiting for a Hurricane, a young woman longs to leave her home by the sea for… well, something more (“you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead,” she reflects). The narrator embarks on a series of relationships which she hopes will facilitate an escape (for example, she takes a job as an air hostess, then becomes involved with the Captain), but doesn’t appreciate what impact all this is having on her family, her lovers, and herself.

The closing Sexual Education is previously unpublished. It’s narrated by a student at a Catholic school who is part of a group taking a new abstinence class in place of standard sex education. However, what she’s being taught in class is rather different from what’s going on among her social group. For example, one girl is being persuaded by an older boy that a certain sexual position is not sinful, but actually allowed by the catechism. The narrator isn’t fooled:

The darkest mysteries – the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Grail – all became much clearer after being doctored by some con man who wanted something in return: a bag of coins, divine grace, Karina’s ass. It was all the same.

As so often in García Robayo’s stories, this bitter humour sits alongside something much darker. If Waiting for the Hurricane is the story of someone who refuses to see what she’s doing to herself and the world around her, the protagonist of Sexual Education is forced to question herself deeply.

Between the two novellas in Fish Soup is a collection of seven short stories with the overall title Worse Things. These pieces frequently feature protagonists who are distanced from life in some way; the stories then often lead to a point of change (or at least reflection). So, for example, in ‘You Are Here’, news of an accident at the airport and an awkward conversation with a young woman at his hotel give a businessman cause to face up to the emptiness in his life. In ‘Better Than Me’, an academic tries to persuade his estranged daughter to let him visit her; it’s a case of closely examining his life to find what might enable him to speak to her. In ‘Like a Pariah’, a woman with cancer has retreated to an old country house to convalesce, but her relationships with others may prove as difficult to handle (if not more so) than any illness.

There’s a lot to like in Fish Soup, and a distinctive voice to explore. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

Book details

Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe (2018), Charco Press, 212 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This story takes the form of an article about one Pierre Menard, a novelist who sought to re-create Don Quixote word for word – not by merely copying the text, but by getting himself into such a state of mind as to write the Quixote exactly as Cervantes would have written it. Menard succeeded, and Borges’ anonymous narrator has great praise for his Quixote, in comparison to Cervantes’ original. In one of my favourite parts of ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator compares (identical) passages from the two Quixote texts, finding a depth and richness in Menard’s rendition absent from Cervantes’, thanks to the different contexts of their composition.

I found this story delightfully absurd, but it’s a particular pleasure to consider the multiple layers of authorship and interpretation within it: Cervantes, Menard, the narrator, then Borges (and then the reader, of course). For example, Menard may have his aspirations, but it’s the narrator who gives him legitimacy by judging Menard’s project successful. Yet, from the reader’s viewpoint (or mine, at least), there’s no difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’ so Menard comes across as somewhat of a Quixote figure himself, with delusions of grandeur. Or maybe it’s the narrator who is a Quixote figure for his opinion of Menard. Layers of interpretation…

Read my other posts on Borges’ stories.

Book details

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. James E. Irby (1962), in Labyrinths (1964 edn), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

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