Tag: And Other Stories

#GoldsmithsPrize2022: Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi

The voice of Mona Arshi’s debut novel belongs to Ruby, a young British Indian woman. It’s an expressive voice in this written (or thought) form, but Ruby decided as a girl that she would stop speaking:

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again.

The scattered vignettes of Somebody Loves You are appropriate for a narrator who’s not used to telling a story to an audience. Still, Ruby’s tale covers a lot of ground in a relatively short length, including growing up, racism and mental health. The latter is explored through the character of Ruby’s mother, and I’m picking it out because I think it’s a good example of how Arshi’s book works.

This is how the subject is introduced:

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

It’s an arresting line, but one that’s at least as interested in the fox as in Ruby’s mother. Actually, in that whole short chapter, the mother’s mental breakdown is strikingly ‘off-page’. Quite a lot (though by no means all) of what happens in Somebody Loves You happens to characters other than Ruby, and of course she can’t see into their experiences – though she can observe.

Ruby notices that her mother finds respite in the garden – a defined space, so rare in this novel of hazy edges. Gardens become one of the book’s recurring motifs, an anchor point for characters and reader alike. The vignettes of Somebody Loves You build together into quite a powerful whole.

Published by And Other Stories.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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. 

And Other Stories: Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs by Gerald Murnane

My introduction to Gerald Murnane was his debut novel Tamarisk Row, which I loved for the way it depicted childhood imagination and the sense of strangeness hidden within the everyday. Murnane’s 2005 essay collection Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs came as part of my And Other Stories subscription, and it has proven an ideal follow-up to Tamarisk Row. I’ve valued it for the chance to spend time in the author’s world. 

The essays in this collection gave me some insight into how Murnane perceives the world. For example, the young protagonist of Tamarisk Row would imagine whole worlds in the abstract patterns of light through glass. It came as no surprise to discover that, when Murnane played horse-racing games with marbles, he would focus on the patterns created out of each small movement. He also mentions a liking of charts and diagrams: some of his essays feel like diagrams put into words, as they circle back over images and memories. 

Murnane’s writing often seems to return to landscapes, but landscapes of the mind, imagined grasslands or plains. As he puts it in ‘Birds of the Puszta‘:

Plains looked simple but were not so. The grass leaning in the wind was all that could be seen of plains, but under the grass were insects and spiders and frogs and snakes – and ground-dwelling birds. I thought of plains whenever I wanted to think of something unremarkable at first sight but concealing much of meaning. And yet plains deserved, perhaps, not to be inspected closely. A pipit, crouched over its eggs in the shadow of a tussock, was the colour of dull grass. I was a boy who delighted in finding what was meant to remain hidden, but I was also a boy who liked to think of lost kingdoms.

Murnane’s work keeps evoking for me a sense of “lost kingdoms”, imaginative spaces hidden just out of sight. When I finished Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, I had been changed by it: when I looked around at the world, something felt different. 

#2021InternationalBooker: Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý

With some books, the voice is key, and here’s one of them. The narrator of Wretchedness is a cellist living in Malmö. As the novel begins, he’s waiting by the canal for a couple of friends and colleagues, a guitarist and composer. He is approached by a homeless man who wants a smoke. As the cellist speaks to this man, he is reminded of his own past, the poverty he escaped. He realises that, if life had turned out differently, he could have been this guy. 

The book then switches back and forth between the cellist’s past and present, contrasting the hard realities of his earlier life with his more abstract thoughts on music, in a torrent of language. Here he is, for example, discovering the freeing power of the radio:

…I listened and thought and listened and soon learnt to recognise the sounds I liked, the ones that sounded different to the ones I was used to, but also words and sounds that in different ways related to the life I recognised, the pain and the rage and the shame and the hate and the madness, like when I, at Eleonora’s place, got to hear Godflesh and Slayer for the first time, and at that point, as I listened, it was like my life got better, like it really, properly, got noticeably better just cos some guy had stood there yelling in a studio…

translation from swedish by nichola smalley

The dense, chapter-long paragraphs of Wretchedness suggest that maybe this man can’t outrun his past after all, because it’s so inextricably mixed up with his present thoughts. Whatever the case, this book is a vivid and powerful journey for the reader.

Published by And Other Stories.

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

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.

Continue reading

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.

The Transmigration of Bodies: ii – networks and conversations

TransmigrationThis is the second in a series of three posts on Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (tr. Lisa Dillman). The first post is here.

The world of The Transmigration of Bodies revolves around personal and familial networks. Foremost, of course, are the crime families: by the time of that initial call to the Redeemer, Dolphin already knows as much as he wants to, as far as he’s concerned; the job he is hiring the Redeemer for will be a strictly practical exercise (there is more to be found out in the end, but that’s fiction for you). We’re also told of a time when a boyfriend attempted to abduct Baby Girl from a shop, and “someone called one of Baby Girl’s brothers – yes, everyone knows fucking everyone,” comments the narrator, wryly.

Actually, the world of Herrera’s novel does not just revolve around these networks – it emerges from them. The underworld through which the Redeemer moves would not exist without the relationships that underpin it, and that affects how we perceive the book’s reality. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Makina crosses the border between Mexico and the US, but it’s not a precisely geographical space: it’s fuzzy. We don’t experience it as a detached observer, but from Makina’s view, peeling back layer after later as she travels on.

It’s similar in The Transmigration of Bodies: the city comes across as less a collection of streets and buildings than one of conversations and encounters, with the invisible currents of familial connection humming in the background. The Redeemer can get along in this world partly because he understands when and how to say the right thing:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person.

In a world of conversations and relationships, words become currency; and someone like the Redeemer knows how to spend wisely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2015), And Other Stories paperback

The Transmigration of Bodies: i – names

TransmigrationThe Transmigration of Bodies is the second of Yuri Herrera’s novels to be translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories. The first was Signs Preceding the End of the World, one of my very favourite books from last year. Where Signs was a book of borders, Transmigration is more concerned with networks and exchange; but that same sense of hallucinating reality is ever-present. I have three posts aboutthis new book lined up, starting with a few notes on names…

In the first chapter, Herrera’s narrator wakes up, looks out on a city that’s been quietened by the plague, and gets frisky with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde. Throughout all of this, we know him only as a pronoun. It’s only at the end of the chapter, when our man has taken a phone call, that he becomes the Redeemer.

The Redeemer has been called upon by Dolphin Fonseca to retrieve the latter’s son Romeo from another crime family, the Costas, in an exchange. What the Redeemer will be exchanging, he discovers later, is the daughter of the Costa family, Baby Girl.

As you might gather from the above, it’s a rare character in The Transmigration of Bodies who gets to be known by an actual name, rather than a nickname or epithet. “Some sad fuck so much as takes a bite of bread and we got to find a name for it,” thinks the Redeemer. These aliases help to mark the contours of the novel’s world: when the Redeemer answers that call from Dolphin, he is explicitly leaving behind a period (however fleeting) of anonymity and stepping back into the city’s underworld. Baby Girl doesn’t like her nickname; but, when she speaks her real name aloud, we’re not told what it is – she’s as bound by the alias as she is by social and familial forces.

The nicknames also slide into a more general euphemistic language that sets the terms of engagement with the crime world:

Banished man alias Mennonite. Broken man alias Redeemer. Lonely old soul alias Light of my life. Ravaged woman alias Wonder where she’s gone. Get revenge alias Get even. Truly fucked alias Not to worry. Contempt alias Nobody remembers him. Scared shitless alias Didn’t see a thing. Scared shitless alias Doing just fine. Some sad fuck alias Chip off the old block. Just what I was hoping for alias You won’t get away with this. Housebroken words alias Nothing but truth.

There are some things that can only be done under an alias. And there are some things you don’t say about them, at least not directly.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

The Emperor’s New House: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

FollyThe South African writer Ivan Vladislavić now has the most titles of any author on And Other Stories‘ roster; and when they keep plucking gems like this from his bibliography, it’s not hard to see why. The Folly is Vladislavić’s first novel, originally published in 1993 towards the end of apartheid; it’s as delicious and disturbing a tale of one succumbing to another’s illusions as you might wish.

We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Malgas, who live a mundane suburban existence:

The frog-mug had been bought at a sale of factory rejects, and for that reason it was Mrs Malgas’s favourite, warts and all. Mr Malgas thought it was in bad taste. He stirred the coffee, scraping the frog on the murky bottom maliciously with the spoon. He fished the tea-bag out of his own mug, which was chocolate-brown and had I ♥ DIY printed on it in biscuit. He thought this one was gimmicky too, but it had been a Father’s Day present from his spouse and he used it out of a sense of duty.

The couple watch a shanty burning on the evening news, but the distance of the television (and the cosseting effect of that Vladislavić’s prose) ensures that this doesn’t intrude unduly into their lives. They are known to us only as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, which increases the sense of them as cartoonish figures, but also – subtly – denies them the dignity of their own names.

A mysterious figure called Nieuwenhuizen moves on to the plot next to the Malgases’ house and sets up camp, using the rubbish around him for furniture. After a spell of observing him for a distance, Mr Malgas goes up to Nieuwenhuizen to find out what he’s doing. It turns out that the newcomer is building a house, though he hasn’t started yet. The owner of a hardware shop, Mr Malgas is inspired by this, and is soon helping Nieuwenhuizen out: clearing the ground to lay down a grid pattern, hammering in nails for cat’s-cradles of string that somehow correspond to the great plan… Actually, Mr Malgas does rather more than help out, and since Nieuwenhuizen insists on being called ‘Father’ (and Mr is quite happy to oblige), you can imagine what sort of relationship is established between them.

To recall another And Other Stories novel, Nieuwenhuizen is like Joe, the salesman from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, in his ability to manipulate others through language and rhetoric. Vladislavić’s approach is a little different: where DeWitt immerses her readers in Joe’s business-speak and does not allow them to gain purchase outside it, in The Folly we see Mr Malgas’s willing capitulation; Nieuwenhuizen’s contempt for him; and Mrs Malgas looking on aghast. As a result, we don’t quite get caught up in Mr’s enthusiasm, but we are swept along in the wake of its unstoppable tide, and we fear where it might end up.

As the novel progresses, the idea of Nieuwenhuizen’s house grows stronger – stronger than (or perhaps indistinguishable from) the reality. Here, The Folly put me in mind of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila, in the blurring of its imaginative and physical space. But the transformative power of The Folly is all its own. Let this novel whisper in your ear, and listen closely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Folly (1993) by Ivan Vladislavić, And Other Stories paperback

Lightning Rods (2011) by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories paperback

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013) by Iván Repila, tr. Sophie Hughes (2015), Pushkin Press paperback

© 2022 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: