Page 2 of 146

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.

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

And Other Stories: Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This short Norwegian novel was a hit in my corner of the blogosphere when the English version was published by Archipelago in 2018. Then, a couple of years later, the And Other Stories edition was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. I’m pleased to have finally caught up with it. 

Love was originally published back in 1997, and it’s very much a story of times when people didn’t tend to have communication on tap in their pockets. We meet single mother Vibeke and her son Jon, whose ninth birthday is tomorrow. Both are preoccupied with their own thoughts. 

The structure of Love is striking: within each chapter, the perspective shifts between Vibeke and Jon, but without scene breaks, so their stories merge into and out of each other. This reflects how they live alongside each other: together but separate. It feels as though, even if they were in the same place, they would still be apart. 

For their own reasons, both characters go out. Jon assumes Vibeke must be buying ingredients for for a birthday cake, but she has a work colleague on her mind. Over the course of the evening, mother and son move in similar spaces, even encounter the same characters sometimes – but they remain apart. Love – the idea or absence of it – haunts proceedings.

Ørstavik will often arrange scenes so that Jon and Vibeke are in the same type of environment – different houses or different cars. When these merge together, it flips the sense of the book around: now, even though mother and son are separated physically, they may be closer together in other ways. This plays out with painful clarity at the end, a poignant final chapter to a compelling novel. 

#2022InternationalBooker: and the winner is…

I’m so glad that Tomb of Sand has won the 2022 International Booker Prize. First and foremost, it’s an excellent book, a joy to read.

The International Booker has built up a track record of shining a light on fiction from less commonly translated languages. I hope this win helps bring literature from Indian languages to a wider audience (and that it helps encourage more publishers…).

What I like most of all is that Tomb of Sand got to this position because of people’s passion for it. There is no compromise in the writing, translation, publishing, or indeed the prizegiving. Congratulations to author Geetanjali Shree, translator Daisy Rockwell and publisher Tilted Axis Press for their win, and thanks to everyone at the Booker for a great result!

© 2022 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: