TagAnthologies

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 (ed. Mark Andryczyk)

Penguin have recently issued a paperback edition of this anthology, which was originally published in 2017 under the title The White Chalk of Days. It’s a selection of Ukrainian texts in translation that were presented as part of a literature series in North America between 2008 and 2016.

There’s a lot I could talk about in this book: fifteen writers represented, and a variety of pieces. I’m going to pick out a few of my favourites to highlight.

‘Books We’ve Never Read’ by Marjana Savka (tr. Askold Melnyczuk). I love the imagery of this short poem. It gives me a strong sense of the world opening up to the speaker: “The roads turn like pages. Eyes reddened by wind. / Nothing now but the bookmark of the horizon.”

‘Genes’ by Andriy Bondar (tr. Vitaly Chernetsky). There’s a sarcastic tone to this poem (“should I explain to you what a laptop is?”) that I appreciated. It starts with Bondar commenting that his family has good genes (or so he’s been told, at least) before reflecting on how modern lifestyles may affect health. At the same time, he talks about people who think that what he writes isn’t really poetry. His conclusion that he writes the way he does because he has to, that the ideal can’t fit everyone.

FM Galicia by Taras Prokhasko (tr. Mark Andryczyk). A selection of vignettes that were originally read out live on the radio. There are some striking thoughts and turns of phrase here. For example, in one piece, Prokhasko reflects on the place of firewood in mountain life: “when you only come to the mountains occasionally, firewood is not treated as daily bread but as some kind of delicacy, as gourmet food, like a cordial.”

‘The Flowerbed in the Kilim’ by Yuri Vynnychuk (tr. Mark Andryczyk). The narrator of this story imagines what it might be like in the small house woven into a rug hanging on the wall. One day, impossibly, he is able to enter the scene, and finds himself taken back to his childhood, visiting his Grandma. This situation can’t last, and the effect is poignant.

Apricots of the Donbas by Lyuba Yakimchuk (tr. Svetlana Lavochkina with Michael N. Naydan). A cycle of poems about the centrality of coal to the poet’s native region. There’s some vivid imagery, as in ‘The Face of Coal’, whose speaker imagines their father affected by a life of mining: “His cheeks are like trenches / Chopped up by the pit”.

I didn’t know much about Ukrainian literature, so I’m glad to have read this. If you’re interested, I think there is a good chance you’ll find something to enjoy within these pages.

#SpanishLitMonth: The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories (ed. Margaret Jull Costa)

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. 

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Anthology review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard

There have been a few anthologies published recently in response to the current political climate. I reviewed one, Tempest, last month – and today I have another. Zero Hours on the Boulevard (ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans) comes from the Welsh publisher Parthian and is subtitled ‘Tales of Independence and Belonging’. It includes a mixture of English-language originals and translated pieces, often revolving around how individuals may relate to their surroundings (whether old or new). An opening poem in three languages sets the tone: in ‘Lands of Mine’, Hanan Issa writes about being one person from multiple places.

One story that I found particularly affecting is ‘A Birthday Card From the Queen’ by the Maltese writer Clare Azzopardi (tr. Albert Gatt). Old Kelinu spends most of his time making tea, even though he doesn’t like drinking it. He struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world, thinks things were better in days of Empire, and waits patiently for his hundredth birthday when he’ll receive a card from the Queen. The sense is clear that Kelinu is a figure out of time, and his grip on life may be fragile; but there are some piercing moments, such as this, where Kelinu remembers his late wife Maria:

When the tea has cooled he pours it into the sink. He puts a lot of washing-up liquid into the glass and lets the foam rise and rise, then he rinses the glass and rinses away Maria’s face, the white dress gliding across the carpet of a humble church and the hard years that followed. Maria lying in the throes of her illness, heavy as the rain clouds dimming in the light of the room. Nothing remained of Maria’s pear-shaped body, nothing but foam.

Some of the pieces in Zero Hours on the Boulevard concern characters who move (or have moved) to a new place. In ‘When Elephants Fight’, Cameroon-born and Wales-based Eric Ngalle Charles describes his daughter being deeply concerned about what Brexit means for her and asking him where he’s really from. He tells the harrowing tale of what caused him to leave Cameroon, which gives her a new dimension of understanding. ‘The Book of New Words’ by Eluned Gramich sees a German girl start school in England, where she finds the nuances of language rather different from what she’s learned so far. By the time she returns to Germany, her sense of self has shifted. Durre Shahwar‘s ‘Split’ is the short but powerful tale of a woman turned away from the Life in the UK test on a technicality, and Faiza, the invigilator whose mother took that same test in the past. Faiza worries for the woman she glimpses through the Test Centre doors, but is grimly reminded of how little she can do to help.

Other stories in the book revolve around dealing with changes to a familiar place. ‘Mercy’ by Lloyd Markham (an extract from his novel Bad Ideas\Chemicals) takes us to a near-future (or alternative-present) Wales. 19-year-old Louie Jones is trying to jump through the hoops of ‘Careers, Lifestyle & Attitudes’ when he is assigned a work placement at the Mercy Clinic, which leads him to reconsider his relationship with his alcoholic father. This piece is a rush of developments that straddle the borderline between absurd and chillingly plausible. In ‘The Garden’ by Slovak writer Uršul’a Kovalyk (tr. Peter and Julia Sherwood), Ela moves to a new flat in the capital, her modestly-paid job leaving her in a precarious position. She finds the apartment building’s beautiful terraced garden a source of peace, and gets to know Boženska, the old woman who has lived in the building for decades and looks after the garden. The history of the garden comes to stand in for the changing world outside – and, as so many of the stories in this anthology underline, change comes to everywhere and everyone.

Book details

Zero Hours on the Boulevard (2019) ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans, Parthian Books, 248 pages, paperback.

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