Tagnon-fiction

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.

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. 

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland

Originally published in French in 1977, this is a travelogue by Togolese writer Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated by James Kirkup). As a teenager in the 1950s, he is (reluctantly) about to be initiated into a snake cult when he reads a book about Greenland. This place is beyond anything he has experienced or can imagine, but there will be no snakes – and, he reads, “the child is king, free from all traditional and family restraint”. This is enough to make the young Kpomassie resolve to travel to Greenland, even though it means running away from home.

Kpomassie’s journey to Greenland is an epic tale in itself. It takes six years for him to earn enough money to leave Africa, followed by a spell working in Paris before he finally reaches his destination. He stands out, not just for his skin colour but also his height (hence he’s nicknamed Michel the Giant). This will be a two-way meeting of cultures: “I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered.”

Kpomassie’s book is a fascinating account of his travels. There are telling details, such as the cinema that stops foreign films every ten minutes to explain the action to the Inuit audience, because only Danish subtitles are available. These episodes are mixed with Kpomassie’s broader reflections on the people he encounters. His openness and willingness to meet Greenland on its own terms are what make Michel the Giant so engaging for me.

Published by Penguin Modern Classics.

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. 

Daunt Books: Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This year Ninja Book Box are offering a subscription of indie-published memoirs. I don’t read that many memoirs, so I thought this would be a good chance to try something different. I didn’t know which books I was going to get, but I very much enjoyed this first one. It’s published by Daunt Books

American writer Dani Shapiro was born into a large Orthodox Jewish family, and this culture is in her bones, though people have often commented that she doesn’t look Jewish. Shapiro is in her fifties when her husband Michael suggests she join him in taking a DNA test through a genealogy website. She thinks nothing of it, but the results reveal that she cannot be biologically related to her father. 

Shapiro’s parents are no longer alive, but she recalls an offhand comment from her mother that she, Dani, was “conceived in Philadelphia”. Her mother said she had been travelling there for tests relating to artificial insemination. Further research reveals that, at the time, sperm from the prospective father would be mixed with those from other donors, often medical students. With some investigation, Shapiro is able to identify ‘her’ donor – and decides to make contact. 

Inheritance is then the story of how Shapiro is forced to reconfigure her long-held notions of family and identity. She tries to find out just what her family knew about the circumstances of her conception, and wonders if she can make a connection with her new-found biological relations. 

I appreciate that Shapiro doesn’t try to resolve any of these issues definitively – they’re too complex for that. Rather, this book is account of the author coming to terms with the issues for herself. I found Inheritance compelling as the story unfolded to begin with, and it kept my interest to the very end. 

More reviews from #ReadIndies 2022

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

Three books: Pheby, Coleman, Shanbhag

It’s time for another trio of reviews that were first posted on my Instagram.

Alex Pheby, Lucia (2018)

I have quite a few unread Galley Beggar Press books, and I was in the mood to start changing that. So I picked up Lucia by Alex Pheby, which won the Republic of Consciousness Prize a couple of years ago. ⁣

This novel concerns Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know much about her, beyond what it says in the cover blurb: she was a talented dancer, spent her last 30 years in an asylum, and most contemporary references to her have been lost to history. ⁣

Pheby confronts head-on the problems of what it means to write a real life into fiction. The structure is fragmented, with fragments written from a variety of viewpoints – this is a novel told around and to Lucia, not by her. Interspersed between chapters are sequences describing an Egyptian archaeological dig, and the process of mummification – the implication being that the act of writing about Lucia is a similar disturbance. ⁣

Much of what happens in the novel is traumatic for Lucia, and this is uncomfortable to read, as it should be. Overall, I found this book a powerful reading experience, and I appreciated that Pheby made the problem of what he was doing part of the novel itself. ⁣

Flynn Coleman, A Human Algorithm (2019)

This book is a look at some of the issues around artificial intelligence. Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney, and her book is very much focused on the ethical implications of AI and what it might mean for us as humans. ⁣⁣

⁣⁣This is not a subject I know much about, and I appreciate that Coleman is posing questions at least as much as trying to come up with answers – the book seems meant as a starting point for a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. ⁣⁣⁣

It seems to me that Coleman is pretty even-handed in considering both the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI. She’s clear, though, that it’s urgent for us to be thinking about issues such as how we might instil morals into machines (and whose morals they should be), because the technology will continue to develop in any case. ⁣⁣⁣

I like the range of Coleman’s book, and it left me with a lot to think about, which is what I wanted most of all from it. If the subject piques your interest, A Human Algorithm is well worth your time.

Published by Melville House UK.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perar (2017)

The narrator of this short novel is a director of his family’s spice business in Bangalore, though it’s so successful that he doesn’t need to do any work. His uncle built the firm up, transforming the family’s fortunes in the process – though money has not solved all their problems. ⁣

The narrator structures his story around the hierarchy of his household, with his uncle at the top and himself somewhere towards the bottom. This has the effect of making the novel feel like a series of anecdotes, and there are some engaging episodes, such as the family’s attempts to deal with an ant infestation in their old shack. But this book is more than a yarn: the narrator is not telling us everything. ⁣

His wife, Anita, is often at odds with the rest of the family – she wasn’t too happy to discover that her husband earned no money for himself, for example. The particular incident on which the book pivots is when a woman arrives at the house asking to speak to the uncle, and is summarily sent away by the narrator’s mother. Anita is the only family member who feels the woman was treated badly, and tells her husband that he should have intervened. The ramifications of this play out across the novel. ⁣

Within the book, “ghachar ghochar” is a phrase invented by Anita to mean “hopelessly tangled up”. That’s what the narrator comes to feel his life is like, and with good reason. Vivek Shanbhag examines the implications of his characters looking away from what they don’t want to see. ⁣

Published by Faber & Faber.

⁣⁣⁣

Blog tour: Launch titles from V&Q Books

My post today is part of a blog tour for V&Q Books, the new English-language imprint from the German publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint is headed by the translator Katy Derbyshire, and is dedicated to writing from Germany. It’s not necessarily going to be limited to books translated from German, although the first ones are. V&Q offered me review copies of their first three titles, and I take a look at each below…

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Sandra Hoffmann, Paula (2017)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

Paula begins like this:

We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet.

This autobiographical work explores the effects such a deliberate silence may have on a family. The young Sandra Hoffmann knew that she and her mother looked different from other people in her village – darker-skinned – but she didn’t know who her grandfather was. Her grandmother Paula, a staunch Catholic, refused to say.

This isn’t a story of Hoffmann discovering her grandfather’s identity. It’s a study of the gaps left behind and what might fill them. Hoffmann goes over the many photographs that Paula left behind, and imagines the scenes and people in them.

The silence – the schweigen – permeates the book, spreading through its long passages. The oppressive effects of the silence on family life, in Hoffmann’s childhood and down the years, are vividly conveyed.

Lucy Fricke, Daughters (2018)
Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe (2020)

Daughters is the story of two women – old friends – trying to find their place in life at age forty, and to deal with the loss of a father-figure.

For Martha, this loss is imminent: her father has booked an appointment for a one-way journey to Switzerland, and wants her to drive him. Betty wants to visit Rome to find the grave, not of her biological father (with whom she has little to do), but an ex-partner of her mother’s, an Italian she remembers as “the Trombonist”. Martha and Betty embark on a road trip across Europe with these intentions in mind. But both of them will find that the situation is not as they imagined, and their relationships will be tested.

Lucy Fricke’s novel is full of wry humour that makes it a pleasure to read:

We were the daughters of fathers who’d only found time to talk to us after they’d retired. We explained the internet to them and they explained the weather. Their love came so late that we barely knew what to do with it. We just accepted it with gratitude. But we had little to give, and nothing at all to give back.

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is wonderful: so often, I found myself stopping at a striking turn of phrase. The plot veers off in unexpected directions… This book is a joy.

Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century (2018)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

This non-fiction volume is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner”. Grabner (1911-76) was a writer, albeit an obscure one – Francis Nenik says that he wanted to write about a forgotten author, and there was barely anything about Grabner online at the time he looked.

The reason Grabner’s life is described as absurd has to do, I think, with its apparent contradictions. He was a committed young communist who ended up being awarded an Iron Cross by Germany for his military service. He was director of a steelworks in the GDR whose writing was banned.

As with Fricke’s book, there’s a wonderfully wry undercurrent – a fine translation by Katy Derbyshire:

And Hasso Grabner? Not only is he part of the grotesque named history and always precisely where it is being made; he is also co-writing it, even though he doesn’t know the script, and history is more than slippery, what with it only ever coming about when it’s already happened…

You can watch a reading from Journey through a Tragicomic Century here.

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All in all, this set of books is a strong start for V&Q Books (I like their series cover design as well). I look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

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.

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