CategorySpanish

Fitzcarraldo Editions: The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo

The original Spanish title of this novel is ‘Trilogía de la Guerro’ or ‘War Trilogy’ – because (according to an interview with the author) each of its three sections deals with the echoes of war playing out in the characters’ lives. The title of the English translation comes from a line of poetry repeated throughout the book: “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given.”

These themes – the shadow of war and the idea that reality doesn’t stand still – are apparent from the novel’s beginning. A writer (possibly a version of Fernández Mallo) travels to an island to take part in a conference on digital networks. The island was a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War, and the writer spends time finding the places in a book of photographs he has from back then, and taking pictures of those same locations now. Some of the results are reproduced in the novel, past starkly juxtaposed with present. 

In the second part of The Things We’ve Seen, we meet Kurt Montana, purportedly the fourth, unseen astronaut from Apollo 11. Now, Kurt lives in a retirement home, and recounts his life to us. He’s clearly haunted by his time serving in Vietnam, perhaps to the point where he can’t trust his senses or memory. The third part of Fernández Mallo’s book sees a woman take a walking tour of Normandy, where the remnants of war are never far away. 

Nocilla Dream was an earlier novel by Fernández Mallo which used fragments of prose on recurring themes to present the world as as a network without centre. The Things We’ve Seen also uses techniques of recurrence and remixed facts, but its paragraphs are lengthy and discursive. The effect (in another fine translation by Thomas Bunstead) is to suggest that there’s no way out of the writing here, just as there’s no escape from war for Fernández Mallo’s characters. The Things We’ve Seen is a hazy, striking experience. 

The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga

In the mood for a long book? Here’s a 700-page Mexican tale of revenge (translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer) that never flags. Our narrator is Juan Guillermo, who grew up in Mexico in the 1960s. His brother Carlos had his own drug business, and was killed by the Good Boys, a Catholic youth gang protected by the local police chief. Juan Guillermo’s parents died in a car accident a few years later, but he sees their grief over Carlos as the root cause. He would like vengeance, but that won’t come easily. 

The structure is what really makes The Untameable stand out to me. For a long way into the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between different periods of Juan Guillermo’s life, as though highlighting that none of this is really over for him. A parallel strand sees a young man hunting an infamous wolf in the Yukon, which mirrors Juan Guillermo’s search for revenge – and intersects directly with his story in the end. In between chapters, there are shorter passages on different beliefs and practices around death, which show how much this weighs on Juan Guillermo’s mind. 

I found The Untameable to be fascinating, poignant, and a good old page-turner.

Published by MacLehose Press.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

This is Mariana Enríquez’ second story collection to appear in English translation by Megan McDowell (though it was her first to be published in the original Spanish). I would have loved Things We Lost in the Fire to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (as it was then), so I was pleased to see that this collection had made it.

Enríquez tells tales of urban horror, with vivid unsettling images such as the dead baby that returns as a ghost in ‘Angelita Unearthed’, though not necessarily as the kind of spirit that the protagonist anticipates. Then there’s ‘The Well’, in which a woman tries to excise the fears that have blighted her life by returning to a witch she visited as a child. There’s a real sense of nightmare about it. 

My favourite piece in the book is the novella ‘Kids Who Come Back’. This is the story of Mechi, who works at the archive for lost children in Buenos Aires. Mechi’s life (and other people’s) is turned upside down when missing children start to reappear – though all is not as it seems. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to Enríquez’ novel Our Share of Night, which is being published in McDowell’s translation next year. 

Published by Granta Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Three books: Dillon, Gorodischer, Miller

It’s time for another selection of short reviews that first appeared on my Instagram.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

It always fascinates me that I can read something and it will move me so much. How does that work? How does writing do what it does? Brian Dillon’s new essay collection from Fitzcarraldo Editions approaches these sorts of questions by looking at individual sentences. ⁣

Dillon says in his introduction that he’s been collecting striking sentences in notebooks for 25 years. He examines some of these, and others, in this book – sentences by writers from William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin to Hilary Mantel. ⁣

Dillon’s responses to the sentences are deeply personal and often wide-ranging. He might go into the author’s biography, or look at the wider context of their work. There’s a certain amount of discussing the grammatical nuts and bolts, but it’s always at the service of working out what makes each sentence distinctive. ⁣

I’m struck in particular that Dillon doesn’t always explain the context of the sentences straight away – he waits until the time is right. That means the reader often has to come to each sentence on its own terms, which is especially interesting where a sentence is not taken from its author’s best-known work. ⁣

Above all, Suppose a Sentence inspires me to think about sentences that I find striking, what they do and why. It’s a book to stir one’s enthusiasm for reading. ⁣

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979)
Translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (2013)

Penguin Classics have launched a new science fiction series which I’m excited about, particularly as half of the launch list is in translation. I also love the series design, all stark line drawings and purple accents (a nod to the purple logo used by Penguin for science fiction back in the ’70s).

The first book I’ve read from the series is this Argentinian novel-in-stories. Trafalgar Medrano (born in the city of Rosario in 1936) is a merchant with a taste for strong coffee, unfiltered cigarettes, and women. He also travels and trades among the stars, returning to his home city to tell the tall tales in this book. ⁣

On the downside, I have to say that Trafalgar’s constant womanising gets tedious. But the sheer imagination of these stories is quite something. Trafalgar travels to all manner of worlds: on one, he seems to jump through time each day. On a different world, everything is rigidly ordered, with just one person willing to break away by speaking nonsense. ⁣

What makes Gorodischer’s book for me is the casual way it narrates such extraordinary events. There’s no need for explanation, you just go with the flow and whole worlds open up. ⁣

Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014)

This poetry collection won the Forward Prize in 2014. Broadly speaking, it’s about two ways of knowing the world: the scientific precision of those who set out to find “the measure that / exists in everything”, and the instinct of someone like Quashie, who “knew his poems by how they fit in earthenware”, because each word is just as long as it needs to be.⁣

Much of the book is taken up by the long title poem, which concerns the different views of a cartographer and a rastaman. The mapmaker sees it as his job “to untangle the tangled / to unworry the concerned”. But the rastaman knows that the “tangle” is itself part of his island, and thinks that the cartographer’s work “is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves”. ⁣

Interspersed among the volume is a series of prose poems which reveal the stories behind different place names, such as Bloody Bay, “after the cetacean slaughter” These pieces highlight the history that lies behind a bare list of names, history unknown to the cartographer. ⁣

“If not where / then what is Zion?” asks the cartographer. It’s “a reckoning day”, replies the rastaman, “a turble day.” Reaching Zion, the rastaman says, is not a matter of travel, but a “chanting up of goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness…to face the road which is forever inclining hardward.” Not every place that matters can be located on a map. ⁣

Published by Carcanet Press.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

A Silent Fury – Yuri Herrera

“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire (2018)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

It’s July, which means Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard from Caravana de recuerdos. Today I’m returning to Yuri Herrera, who wrote one of my very favourite novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World. His latest book is a non-fiction account of a tragedy that took place in his hometown of Pachuca, Mexico.

On 10 May 1920, there was a fire in the El Bordo mine. After a short period of evacuation, the authorities decided there was no possibility that anyone else trapped in the mine could have survived, and the shafts were sealed. When they were reopened, 87 bodies were removed from the mine, and seven other men found in there were still alive. The subsequent report exonerated the authorities of all blame, and even suggested that the miners might have been at fault.

Herrera’s project in this book is not so much about telling the story of the fire – though he does that in part, and it’s vivid and harrowing. He is most focused on the historical documents: the case file and newspaper reports. Herrera aims to show how the victims, survivors and their families have been obscured by the official record.

Sometimes this becomes evident because the record does not acknowledge that these are human lives which were lost. Sometimes it’s the contradictions which draw the investigators’ focus into question. Sometimes people were spoken for by others, such as the female relatives who had to give statements of their relationship to the deceased in order to apply for compensation. These statements mostly “appear only in the voice of some court clerk who interprets, edits, formalizes” – and they all had to be witnessed by a man.

The English title A Silent Fury is well chosen. It appears in the text when Herrera is describing an official photograph of the survivors:

They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.

The “silent fury” is then the kind of reaction that doesn’t appear in the official record, at least not without an act of recovery like this book. It’s also there in Herrera’s writing, a controlled anger verging on sarcasm, which is one of the powerful qualities of Lisa Dillman’s translation.

In some ways, A Silent Fury reminds me of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in that both books confront the question of how to put a human disaster into words, and the implications of doing so. The resulting work brings the victims of the El Bordo fire into focus, allows them to be seen.

Published by And Other Stories.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 20-11

Welcome to the fourth part of my countdown of reading memories from the 2010s. You can read the previous instalments here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.

Something I’ve found interesting about this instalment in particular is that a couple of the books here (The Wake and Lightning Rods) just missed out on a place in my yearly list of favourites when I first read them. But they have stayed with me over the years, and their placing on my list reflects that.

This is one of my reasons for making this list: to see how my feelings about different books have (or haven’t) changed.

On to this week’s memories…

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Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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