I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Elena Knows a couple of years ago, so I was excited to see that Charco Press and translator Frances Riddle were publishing a new Piñeiro title. A Little Luck is quite different in subject from Elena Knows, but still has the intensity of perspective.
Our protagonist is Mary Lohan, who has travelled from Boston to Buenos Aires to evaluate a school for accreditation, on behalf of her late husband’s educational institute. However, Mary was born in Buenos Aires as María, and fled years ago. She has changed her appearance enough that she believes she won’t be recognised. But there’s one person in particular she doesn’t want to encounter – and wouldn’t you know it…
A Little Luck gives up its secrets steadily, some quite early on. I like the way this is done, and I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I am going to be cagey about how much I reveal. A scene at a level crossing is repeated throughout the first part of the novel, embellished more and more each time, until we discover the key event in María’s past. Over the rest of the book, the protagonist explains and reflects on her decision to leave Argentina behind. In the end, there were no good choices for María, only the choices she made, Piñeiro’s novel captures the complexity of what flows from that.
Mexico is my latest stop on this year’s International Booker journey. Still Born examines changing feelings about motherhood, through the experiences of two thirtysomething female friends. Both were sure at one time that they didn’t want to have children, and Laura, the narrator, had her tubes tied.
Laura’s friend Alina starts to feel different, and becomes pregnant after fertility treatment. But she’s faced with a difficult situation when she learns late in the pregnancy that her baby will not be able to support itself independently – yet she’s also advised that going to term will help with any future pregnancy. Then, when baby Inés is born, she survives – albeit with brain damage. So Alina has to rethink her relationship to Inés several times, a process that Nettel traces sensitively.
Laura, for her part, finds herself stepping in to look after her neighbour’s young son, at the same time as her relationship with her own mother is coming under strain. Through this set-up, Nettel explores her subject from multiple angles, in a thought-provoking piece of work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:
12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014) Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)
A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling.
If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting.
I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well.
Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile.
little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book.
7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009) Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)
This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful.
More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike.
A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back.
4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016) Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)
I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.
3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007) Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)
Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.
I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel.
The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.
There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 2019, 2018,2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
It’s been a while since I had a review elsewhere, but there’s a new one up now at Shiny New Books. This time it’s a book from Charco Press: Elena Knows by the Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle. Elena is an old woman with Parkinson’s, whose daughter Rita has been found hanging in the church belfry. Elena is convinced that this must be murder, and she’s travelling across the city to see someone who may be able to help her learn more.
Of all the Charco books I’ve read, I think this may be my favourite. It explores themes of identity and motherhood, and the limits of what we can know about other people – and it conveys vividly how Elena’s life is structured around her condition.
Yesterday is the first Latin American book from Peirene Press: it’s a Chilean novel first published in 1935 and newly translated by Megan McDowell.
Emar’s narrator tells us what happened to him yesterday. The day began with him witnessing a public execution, then he headed off with his wife to travel the city, becoming involved in a series of strange episodes. A trip to the zoo sees the couple joining in with a group of singing monkeys. A visit to an artist’s studio has the narrator debating colour with the painter, who puts green in everything.
Each chapter ends with the couple exclaiming, “Let’s go!”, but it’s not so easy to leave the day’s events behind. The man’s thoughts and memories continue to spiral around him. What begins as an intriguing account of an off-kilter day becomes a striking look at an interior life.
This is another readalong title for Spanish Lit Month, and my chance to read Vargas Llosa for the first time. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published in Spanish in 1977 (Helen Lane’s English translation appeared in 1982). It’s inspired by the author’s life in Peru in the 1950s.
Eighteen-year-old Marito has literary aspirations, though he’s currently earning a living writing news bulletins for a radio station. Two people are about to change his life: one is Julia, a relation of his by marriage, with whom Marito falls in love. The other is Pedro Camecho, a celebrated Bolivian scriptwriter, brought in to liven up the radio soap operas.
One strand of Vargas Llosa’s novel chronicles the ups and downs of Marito’s relationship with Julia, which he has to keep secret from his family. Alternate chapters tell some of Comecho’s stories, which are eventful and larger-than-life, invariably ending in a series of questions pondering what might happen next.
I found Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter very enjoyable to read. The Comecho chapters set a heightened tone for the book, and the Marito ones in turn take on some of that feeling. It really keeps the pages turning.
Over the last few years, Penguin Classics have published new anthologies of translated short stories from individual countries. There have been Dutch, Japanese and Italian anthologies, and this latest one focuses on Spain.
Renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa has selected over fifty stories from the 19th century to the present day, many of them appearing in English for the first time. As well as Castilian Spanish, the book includes stories originally written in Basque, Catalan and Galician.
I worked my way through the anthology gradually, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the stories. For this review, I thought I’d pick out some of my favourites. I’ve kept these in the order they appear in the book (which is arranged in chronological order of the authors’ birth). All of the stories below are translated by Margaret Jull Costa, unless otherwise stated.