I’m sure I’ve already made this observation here but I’ve yet to read a dud from Peirene Press. Their books are always thought-provoking and often beautifully expressed, a tribute to both writer and translator, or in this case translators. Clearly, Meike Ziervogel has a very discerning editorial eye and her own writing is quite remarkable, too: Flotsam is one of this year’s favourite books for me. Emmanuelle Pagano’s interconnected set of brief short stories, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, is the last in Peirene’s Here Be Monsters series, exploring the lives of those who live a little outside society.
We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try to see more clearly inside ourselves
The inhabitants of a French village, high up in the mountains, are no different from anyone else in that they have memories, families, friends, lives marked by the usual sadnesses and occasional outbreaks of joy, but some have suffered more than others. Every afternoon, a man stands on the bend of the road where his family was killed, as if to turn back time, then the road is diverted leaving him truly lost. A man is shamed by the childhood joke whose cruelty still lingers in the lives of the two women who were its victims. A hitchhiker finds himself picked up by a taciturn woman whose driving is so dangerous she seems intent on killing them both. A woman remembers the cousin she so closely resembled they were often mistaken for each other, convinced that her cousin committed suicide, while another thinks of the therapist obsessed with the fox she put out of its misery as a child shortly after her parents separated. These stories and many more are bookended with the childhood memories of a woman happy to read alone while listening to her cousins play and the reflections of another who discovers there’s much to learn about her fellow readers from her library loans.
When I borrow books, I take with me glimpses of their daily goings-on, all the little doings that fill our own stories and mingle with those in the books, sometimes to the extent of leaving their marks on the pages, the inside things and the outside things.
Pagano’s stories offer snapshots of the villagers’ lives through their memories and anecdotes. Many of her characters are alone or on the fringes of society. Their stories are often sad – suicide, grief and loss are frequent – but there’s also tolerance, gentle humour and small kindnesses. Each is told in the character’s own, distinct voice, unfolding their lives in simple yet striking descriptions:
This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock.
Small details accrue, each one carefully stitched in until a vivid picture of a community emerges. Beautifully executed, it’s another Peirene triumph.
Peirene Press: London 2019 9781908670540 124 pages Paperback