Tag: short 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.

Women in Translation Month: Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”

Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.

In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.

What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.

Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.

The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.

Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.

Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.

Published by Granta Books.

#2022InternationalBooker: Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

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Oh, how I loved this. It’s not often that a story collection will grab my attention from the beginning and keep it throughout. But, for me, there isn’t a weak link among the ten stories in Cursed Bunny

Bora Chung’s stories in this book are often strange, often creepy, always compelling. The title story concerns a family who make cursed objects. The grandfather tells his grandson how he broke the rules and cursed an object for personal use: a bunny-shaped lamp designed to wreak revenge on the company that destroyed his friend’s family business. Rabbits chew their way through the company’s paperwork, but they don’t stop there – and the tale takes some unexpected and horrific turns. 

Some of Chung’s stories are built around powerful metaphors. In ‘The Embodiment’, a woman finds that her period won’t stop. She takes birth control pills for several months, to no avail – in fact, they make her pregnant. The doctors tell her that she must find someone to be the child’s father, or things will go badly for her. Societal pressures around motherhood and relationships are transformed into vivid narrative strokes that raise the protagonist’s predicament to a higher pitch of intensity. 

There are entries in Cursed Bunny that read like fairy tales, though with Chung’s distinctive stamp. ‘Snare’ begins with a man coming across a trapped fox that bleeds liquid gold. He becomes rich from this, but eventually bleeds the fox to death. The man has the fox’s fur made into a scarf for his wife, who then falls pregnant. The man finds a way to obtain gold from his children, but at a terrible cost. This is a sharp parable of greed. 

What really makes Cursed Bunny hang together for me is the voice. Anton Hur’s translation from Korean is beguiling, as it persuades the reader that all of this could happen. Bora Chung goes on to my list of must-read authors. 

Published by Honford Star, a small press specialising in books from East Asia.

Read my other posts on the 2022 International Booker Prize here.

Red Circle Minis 6 and 7: Japanese fiction in English

Let’s start the year by catching up with Red Circle Minis, the series of short Japanese books which are published straight into in English translation. My previous reviews of this series are here and here.

One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

One Love Chigusa is the longest Red Circle Mini to date, written by Soji Shimada (whose locked-room mystery Murder in the Crooked House I enjoyed previously) and translated by David Warren, a former British Ambassador to Japan. 

Beijing, 2091: 25-year-old Xie Hoyu is severely injured in a road accident. Technology is advanced enough to repair his body and memories, but he’s as much machine as flesh, if not more. Xie finds he’s lost interest in life, and his perception has also changed: in particular, women all seem to have the snarling red faces of demons. 

One day, Xie notices a beautiful woman whose face appears human. He feels that she gives him reason to live, and becomes obsessed with her. He learns that her name is Chigusa, and asks to go out with her – but something isn’t quite right. 

One Love Chigusa paints in broad narrative strokes, and Xie’s obsessive behaviour is difficult to take to. But the story asks questions about the nature of humanity that I found compelling in the end. 

Monkey Man by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley

In this story, a hacker group called Arlecchino works to expose The Complex, the vast organisation responsible for many of the world’s ills. One of Arlecchino’s operatives is Monkey Man, a masked figure with preternatural agility. He’s among the number of young people who are developing remarkable abilities. Our protagonist, Yuri, is another: she has healing powers. She’s also about to discover that Arlecchino are closer to home than she imagines. 

Takuji Ichikawa writes in his afterword that Monkey Man is a companion piece to The Refugees’ Daughter, his previous entry in the Red Circle Minis series. Both are about young people saving the world, and they’re deliberately broad-brush, heightened and idealistic. 

So I think it’s important to accept Monkey Man for what it is in order to enjoy it properly – and it’s a fun romp that wears its heart on its sleeve. Part of Monkey Man‘s message is that the world could do with a bit more idealism. It makes the case persuasively. 

Inkandescent: Address Book by Neil Bartlett

My post today is part of a blog tour for Address Book, the latest title by Neil Bartlett, published by Inkandescent. Address Book is a cycle of seven stories, each inspired by an address at which the author has lived. 

My favourite stories are at the beginning and end. In the first piece, ’14 Yeomans Mews’, hospital doctor Andrew takes us back to when he was fifteen in 1974, and met an older man, John, at a railway station. Andrew was powerfully attracted to him, as he had been to others – but there was something different this time: “None of the other men I’ve ever met has made me admit that the boy doing the staring and the boy with my name are the same person.”

John invites Andrew to visit his home, which changes everything. Bartlett brilliantly evokes the combination of desire, joy and trepidation that Andrew feels. It becomes clear that this is not just a question of love or sexual attraction: John also represents an aspirational lifestyle – a secure life – that’s beyond anything the young Andrew knows. This is a story of powerful emotions, not least the poignant ending. 

At the other end of the book is ’40 Marine Parade’. After almost thirty years together, Roger and Todd left London to settle down by the sea. But life took a tragic turn just seven years later, as Bartlett (in Roger’s voice) conveys in stark terms: “one cold Wednesday afternoon in March, Todd just wasn’t there any more. He wasn’t on the stairs; he wasn’t in the kitchen, and he wasn’t in the bed.”

The story depicts Roger working through his grief dynamically, represented by him exploring a run-down old house. Eventually he meets someone new, which makes this piece something of a mirror to the first one, looking hopefully to the future, as Andrew looked back on the past. 

The seven stories of Address Book range through time and perspective. For example, ‘203 Camden Road’ is set in the 1960s, where a pregnant woman gets to know her gay neighbour. ’72 Seaton Point’ is narrated by a gay man who attends his friends’ civil partnership ceremony, and reflects on how times have changed. I really enjoyed Address Book, and I’ll be looking out for more of Neil Bartlett’s work in the future. 

Broken Sleep Books: Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard

The book I’m looking at today is a collection of three stories by Rosanna Hildyard, which was longlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. It’s published by Broken Sleep Books, who specialise in pamphlets; Slaughter is one of their first fiction titles. 

Hildyard’s stories are all set among the farms of the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. Each revolves around a different couple, all facing conflict in their relationship with one another and the natural world. 

The narrator of ‘Offcomers’ met her husband, an older farmer, by chance. She might have loved him at first sight, but now he’s abusive. He grumbles about tourists, by which he means farmers down in the valley. She, on the other hand, appreciates that all humans, including her husband, are outsiders to this landscape. The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 brings change, and perhaps a chance of escape.

The farming couple in ‘Outside Are the Dogs’ are of a similar age, but they’re still mismatched. She’s a local girl who has lived around the world and has an air of sophistication that intimidates him, “a man of hands, not words”. As time goes on, cracks appear in their relationship. They buy a puppy, hoping that it might bring them closer together, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. 

In ‘Cull Yaw’, Star has known her partner since school – but she’s vegetarian, and he raises livestock for meat. There are problems on the farm, while Star struggles to relate to her ailing mother. 

Throughout the book, Hildyard’s prose evokes the stark realities of farm life. There’s always a tension between the different strands of her stories, and I really appreciate the way she brings them together. I like it when a story collection feels like a cohesive whole, and Slaughter is a fine example of that. 

Reflex Press: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock

It’s ten years now since I read ‘My Girl’, the story that won Emily Bullock the Bristol Short Story Prize. So many things have changed in that time, but I could still recall the atmosphere of that story. ‘My Girl’ is here again at the start of Human Terrain, Bullock’s new collection from Reflex Press. It was a pleasure to re-read: narrated by a mother acting as cutman for her daughter in a boxing match, it switches between a vivid account of the present fight and reflecting on the events that brought the pair to where they are. ‘My Girl’ is a story that works equally as well taken at face value and as a metaphor for the characters’ relationship.

Like ‘My Girl’, the title story of Human Terrain places its protagonist in a situation that may or may not be read as, real in order to illuminate a mother-daughter relationship. A woman stands at the front of a lecture theatre, but this isn’t going to be the standard War Studies lecture that the students are expecting. The narrator wants to tell the audience about her daughter in Iraq, a much more personal story than the dispassionate accounts they’re used to. History isn’t in the textbooks, she says, but neither is it quite in her daughter’s story – the truth for her is something more raw and brutal. 

Bullock’s characters are often facing situations that embody the tensions in their lives, but sometimes her stories document a more abrupt change. ‘Zoom’ is set in rural Lincolnshire, where a boy has a school assignment called “Getting to Know Your Neighbours”. But his neighbours aren’t so easy to approach, so he’s taken to filming them instead of trying to interview them. There’s an irony in that the boy doesn’t get to know his neighbours that well at all through the filming , as the story’s sudden, powerful ending illustrates. 

Perhaps my favourite story in Bullock’s collection is ‘Open House’. In this, Freddie sees that his childhood home is up for sale, and decides to pay a visit during the open house, the first time he’s been back to Whitechapel in twenty years. What he finds is an uneasy mixture of the past coming back to him while the present unspools out of his grasp. “A person’s life shouldn’t be an open house,” Freddie thinks, “for strangers to trample through and pick over”. It’s a pointed sentiment in a collection of vivid portraits.

Red Circle Minis 4 and 5: Japanese fiction in English

My post today is about a couple of titles in the Red Circle Minis series: short Japanese books that have been translated and published in English first. I wrote about the first three Red Circle Minis here, and now it’s on to the next two…

The Refugees’ Daughter by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Emily Balistrieri

A few years ago, young Aimi thought the world’s problems only happened elsewhere. But now catastrophe has caught up, and she and her family are refugees. They are due to travel through the gate, a mysterious structure leading to who-knows-where – but they do know that soldiers can’t follow them, so it’s worth the risk. ⁣

A lot of this story’s atmosphere comes from its fantastical elements: the strange, narrowing white tunnels of the gate, or the voice of Aimi’s friend Yusune, who’s broadcasting to her having already passed through. But there’s also an intriguing question at the heart of ‘The Refugees’ Daughter’, which is who might hold the key to moving forward in a time of collapse. Ichikawa looks for an alternative to military might, and his answer is quite inspiring. ⁣

The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Meredith McKinney

Kanji Hanawa wrote one of the previous stories in this series: ‘Backlight’, a sharp look at how society may treat people who fall through its cracks. ‘The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro’ is something rather different, a historical tale about a rather ordinary nobleman. ⁣

Asunaro will inherit his father’s title one day (his nickname means ‘Someday-soon’), but there’s nothing remarkable about him. Perhaps his most notable trait is an eye for the ladies at court. Not that he’s much good with them: one failed attempt at wooing haunts him throughout his life. ⁣

This is an unusual story, in that it avoids the sort of colourful historical figure you might expect to see. Yet it’s engaging nonetheless, as it brings a certain gravity to the life of an apparently mundane individual. ⁣

#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. 

Continue reading

#SpanishLitMonth: A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco

Stu chose this book for a Spanish Lit Month readalong, a collection from that fine publisher of Latin American fiction, Charco Press. The five stories in A Perfect Cemetery (marvellously translated by Jennifer Croft) are all set in Federico Falco’s native Córdoba Province in Argentina. The image of the title implies long-term stasis, but Falco’s characters are actually facing pivotal moments of change in their lives. 

Let’s start with the story ‘A Perfect Cemetery’ itself. In the town of Colonel Isabeta, the mayor wishes to build his father the perfect cemetery. The old fellow is 104 and has been ailing for years, but there’s no sign of him going anywhere just yet. Enter cemetery designer extraordinaire Víctor Bagiardelli, who sees the chance to create his masterwork – if only he can bring all the pieces together. Víctor’s obsession is brought to life on the page, with the mayor’s father an equally powerful creation. The old man asks Víctor what he will do with the rest of his life. The events of the story force Víctor to confront this question, and may give him the beginnings of an answer. 

There’s more vivid characterisation in ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’. The title character is a teenager who accompanies her mother when the latter is administering the last rites to people. At the start of the story, Silvi announces that she is now an atheist – but she soon develops a fascination with a visiting Mormon missionary. It’s not straightforward infatuation: the Mormon reminds Silvi of a boy she once visited, who died in hospital. But this is not a situation that can give Silvi the anchoring she needs in the world, and there will be painful consequences. The ending, however, points to a way forward, a different kind of hope. 

In ‘Forest Life’, the home of old Wutrich and his daughter Mabel is placed under threat, and so Wutrich tries desperately to find Mabel a husband. She reluctantly marries Satoiki from the local Japanese community. In another example of Falco’s nuanced character work, we can see Mabel’s ambivalence about entering this marriage, balanced against a genuine desire on Satoiki’s part (and perhaps on Mabel’s as well) to make it work. Seeing her father’s experiences in a care home makes Mabel rethink her situation. Yet again in A Perfect Cemetery, the ending of a story is really just a beginning. 

Besides the characterisation, there’s also a strong sense of place and environment in Falco’s stories. ‘The Hares’ introduces us to the self-styled “king of the hares”, who lives out in the wilderness and maintains his own altar of bones. This individual turns out to be a human named Oscar, who has abandoned society for his own reasons. Nobody asked the hares, of course, and Oscar is quite happy to eat them – a tension between character and place that adds another dimension to the story. 

The closing piece, ‘The River’, takes us to the depths of winter, and Señora Kim, who may be living with her late husband’s ghost. When she thinks she sees a naked woman running in the snow towards the river, this could be an hallucination – or it could be a chance to rescue someone and turn a corner. Falco leaves the question open: as so often in this compelling collection, the stories only open out once you finish them. 

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