Category Archives: Fiction in Translation

The Club by Takis Würger (transl. Charlotte Collins): All too believable

Cover imageI had my eye on this one as soon as I saw that it was translated by the excellent Charlotte Collins, although I think I would have read it anyway. Set against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement, Takis Würger’s The Club follows Hans, a young German orphan whose estranged aunt has spotted a way in which her nephew’s boxing prowess can help her in her quest for retribution.

Lonely and bereft, Hans had hoped that Alex might take him home with her to Cambridge but instead he’s left at a Bavarian boarding school, taking up boxing to counter his schoolmates’ bullying. When he receives a letter from her asking him to infiltrate a Cambridge University boxing club in return for a scholarship, Hans accepts only for lack of anything else to do with his life. Alex’s PhD student, Charlotte, sets him up with the entrée he needs, introducing Hans to her father, Angus, who sponsors him, and providing him with the clothing that will mark him out as ‘one of us’. Hans’ boxing flair soon gets him noticed by Josh Hartley, the self-obsessed star of the club who thinks himself principled because he cares about the provenance of his meat. Through diligent training and assiduous lying, Hans works his way onto the university boxing team, winning his bout against Oxford for which he’s to be admitted into the inner sanctum. As with any exclusive club, there’s an initiation rite to complete – one so repugnant that Hans risks blowing his cover to avoid it. By the time, he becomes a Butterfly, Hans has come both to understand the reason Alex has enlisted his help and to overcome the loneliness that has haunted him since he was a child.

Würger explores themes of power, privilege, misogyny and homophobia in this far from comfortable read, telling his story through the voices of its principal players. Many of the details of Josh’s behaviour are so familiar from the well-documented antics of the Bullingdon Club that it’s all too easy to imagine them taken several steps further. Würger manages to nail the mind-bogglingly ghastly sense of entitlement displayed by Josh and co. with a careful but light hand. There are occasional flashes of dark humour while Angus’s lack of understanding of his own crime and concern for Charlotte in the face of the unsporting behavior of the young Butterflies is well done as is Josh’s total lack of self-knowledge, locking himself firmly in a closet of his own determined straightness. I see from Würger’s biographical notes that he, too, was a member of the Pitt Club as a Cambridge undergraduate making me squirm even more. That said, the detail may be peculiar to my own country but I suspect the generality is sadly universal. Not that I take any comfort from that observation.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (transl. Chris Andrews): Spreading the word

Cover imageArgentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is published by Charco Press, a small publisher set up by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Orloff’s a translator which is perhaps why Chris Andrews’ name appears on the book’s cover, just as it should. I wish more publishers would do this. Almada’s novella is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending the preacher’s car.

Reverend Pearson and his daughter are on their way to see Pastor Zack, busy converting indigenous people deep in the Argentinean forest. Pearson has spent a decade touring the country, putting the fear of God into as many people as he can, dragging the reluctant Leni around with him and living out of his car. Leni still remembers kneeling on the backseat watching her distraught mother as her father drove them away. At sixteen she’s both admiring of her father’s skills and disapproving of what he does. When their car breaks down in the harsh heat of the day, a kind stranger tows them to Gringo Brauer’s. Gringo sets to work with his assistant, Tapioca, the unacknowledged son left with him when Tapioca was six. Gringo and Pearson are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks.

Perhaps it’s because both novels end in a deluge or maybe it’s their shared economy of style, striking use of language and fable like quality, either way The Wind That Lays Waste reminded me a little of Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, one of last’s year’s favourites. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback.

Although he had barely used his muscles, lying still all day, the blood that went coursing through his body had made the pit so hot not even the fleas could stand it anymore  

Her characters are sharply observed: Tapioca’s naivete is convincingly drawn while Pearson is full of righteousness, oblivious to the misery he’s caused his daughter by separating her from her mother and forcing his beliefs on her.

His mission on earth was to wash dirty souls, to make them sparkling clean again, and fill them with the word of God  

It’s an impressive piece of fiction, thought-provoking and absorbing. Almada’s is the latest in a long string of novellas I’ve read which demonstrate the power of the form. Much left unsaid for the reader to infer, and all the better for it.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (transl. Faith Evans): Stories about women

A Nail, A Rose is introduced by Faith Evans who first translated Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s stories thirty years ago after meeting the author then in her early 80s. Evans puts the eight pieces comprising this collection in their historical, political and stylistic context, explaining that in the main they were written in the shadow of the Second World War. Bourdouxhe was a feminist writer whose work was much praised by Simone de Beauvoir yet it sank into obscurity until the recent reissue of both La Femme de Gilles and Marie. It’s these spare, striking novellas that made me want to read this collection which spans the years between 1944 and 1985.

Bourdouxhe’s stories are about women. In the eponymous piece, Irene walks home through the blacked-out night shocked by news that her love affair is over. Alarmed at the sound of footsteps behind her, she rounds on her assailant with surprising results. ‘Anna’ evocatively captures the loneliness of a humdrum life, as a woman speculates about her counterpart across the road whose chignon is secured with four nails. ‘Louise’ captures the longing to escape servitude even from the kindest of employers whose act of generosity wins her employee the attention of a man she thinks she loves but finds herself distracted by thoughts of friendship with Madame. Perhaps the most overtly political of the stories, ‘Leah’ sees a woman take decisive and dramatic action when the strike action she’s been covertly working towards is thwarted. In ‘René’, the most fantastical of the stories, a hairdresser’s encounter with an unusual customer evokes a reaction that will overshadow his life, leaving him forever unsatisfied. The final, autobiographical piece, ‘Sous le Pont Mirabeau’ follows a woman who has just given birth as she flees the war, encountering the kindness of strangers and longing for the normality of peace.

Bourdouxhe explores themes of resistance, sexuality, love and the ennui of everyday life in this striking collection. Some stories are more political than others but all are about the lives women lead, their thoughts, wishes and desires. Bourdouxhe accentuates her stories’ apparent simplicity, writing in clean, vivid prose:

Being with Nicolas was just like being with the two tables, the sofa and the radio (Anna)

Love, it’s all the same in the end – it never offers anything new (Anna)

She had a daughter; but though a child might give warmth, a presence and a reason for living, she couldn’t offer relief or help of any kind – she was more of a tender burden (Louise)

Summer was slowly dying. Tomorrow it would be autumn, a long succession of days, and after that a whole lifetime to come (Louise)

Evenings were still, and nights full, light and starry, the sky at peace: in this area, nights had become human again  

He shrank into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until distance overtook him and obliterated everything

These are powerful stories. Much is left unsaid, much for the reader to infer, yet Bourdouxhe’s careful economy of style conveys more in a single unadorned image than a paragraph of overworked flowery prose. What a treat for modern readers to have her work revived.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (transl. Jen Calleja): To the north

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The other two are Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, which didn’t make it onto the shortlist, and Olga Tokarczuk’s quirky Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which did alongside The Pine Islands. One of the things I like about the prize is the joint credit given to the translator who often seems to be overlooked, even by publishers. Why not include their name on the cover? If it were not for Jen Calleja this monolingual wouldn’t have read Marion Poschmann’s novella which would be a shame. It follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth.

When Gilbert wakes from his dream, he’s affronted by Mathilda’s unfaithfulness, brooding on it all day and unconvinced by her denials. He heads to the airport, boarding the first plane that will take him far away and finds himself in Japan. He wanders the streets of Tokyo, sure that Mathilda’s failure to contact him proves the reality of her infidelity, eventually falling into conversation with a young man bent on finding a romantic suicide site. Gilbert is irritated by Yosa’s wan behaviour which reminds him of his students but takes it upon himself to deflect him from his mission, agreeing to visit a celebrated roof with its supposed view of Mount Fuji and the suicide forest where they inadvertently spend the night, before persuading the young man to accompany him to the pine islands of Matsushima, following Bashõ’s journey. They’re whisked along the poet’s route in high-speed trains, stopping here and there, composing haikus at Gilbert’s insistence. While Gilbert attempts to quash his annoyance, composing letters to Mathilda in his head and indulging in philosophical musings, Yosa seems to be fading away.

Poschmann’s novella is both playful and poignant. Gilbert cuts a comic figure with his pomposity and his research into the role of beards in the movies, ridiculous even to him, but he’s unable to shake off his concern for the young man who accompanies him, despite a constant and growing sense of irritation. Poschmann weaves references to Bashõ lightly through her narrative, her descriptions of the Japanese landscape providing a lyrically beautiful backdrop to this journey which becomes as much philosophical as physical. The novella ends on a hopeful note for Gilbert who may well have found what he was looking for even if it’s not quite what he expected.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti (transl. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre): Enduring friendship

Cover imageI wrote a post about friendship a little while ago, part of my Five Books I’ve Read series, beginning it by saying how few novels there seemed to be about friendship, and fewer still about male friendship, at least in my reading experience. Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains offers a corrective to that. At its heart is the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots.

The Guasti family first visit the mountain hamlet of Grana in the summer of 1984. Exacting and taciturn, Pietro’s father is determined to pass on his love of the mountains to his son but seemingly unable to communicate it. His mother sets about making the little rundown house homely, quickly becoming acquainted with the family to whom it belongs. It’s at her urging that Pietro talks to Bruno, the son of a local stonemason who no longer lives with him. Over the years Pietro and Bruno become firm friends. Eventually, as teenagers do, Pietro finds reasons to spend his summers in Milan. When his father dies, Pietro is in his early thirties, struggling to make a living as a documentary maker. Gianni has left him a small patch of land in the mountains on which to build a house. Reluctantly, Pietro takes himself off to Grana where Bruno offers to help. Over that summer, their boyhood friendship is renewed and Pietro comes to understand his father in the way that Bruno always has. Over the next decade, each will live their lives as mountain men in very different ways: Bruno as a farmer, taking care of his beloved cows; Pietro pursuing a career which takes him to Nepal. Both will remain the lynchpin of each other’s lives.

Hard not to gush about this novel, not least because its beautiful descriptions took me back both to alpine holidays and to Nepal whose mountains were the first I properly walked in. Cognetti writes evocatively of the landscape and how deeply Pietro’s father and Bruno are rooted in it –  one torn from it by circumstance, the other determined to pursue the old ways despite great personal cost

In its woods that fire was still ablaze: on the flanks of the mountain the gold and bronze flames of the larches were lit against the dark green of the pines, and raising your eyes to the sky warmed the soul

There’s a quiet poignancy about Cognetti’s writing, both in its depiction of Pietro’s relationship with his father, a man made angry by city life, and in its portrayal of the enduring bond between two men who are very different from each other, the one unable to help the other. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (transl. Sondra Silverston): Truth will out

Cover imageLook at that jacket. Isn’t it tempting? It was its premise that attracted me to Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel but I can’t ignore that cover. Not only is it eye-catching, it fits the book perfectly. Set towards the end of a Tel Aviv summer, Liar tells the story of a young girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation.

Seventeen-year-old Nofar is working the last few shifts of her summer job at an ice-cream parlour, preparing to face her final year in school. In walks Avishai Milner, sore from being turned down for yet another gig. He snarls an insult at her after she corrects his speech, pursuing her as she dashes out. When he touches her arm, she lets out a resounding scream which unleashes all her long pent-up frustration drawing the attention of passers-by who think the worst. Milner finds himself charged with attempted rape while Nofar is bathed in unaccustomed attention. Two other people know what really happened: one is a deaf-mute beggar the other is Lavi who’s watched it all from his bedroom window. Both Lavi and Nofar are suffering the appalling awkwardness of an adolescence unblessed with beauty. Unable to find a way to talk to Nofar with ease, Lavi decides to blackmail her. Over the course of two weeks, Nofar becomes the darling of the media, entangling herself further in deceit. Meanwhile Milner is in turmoil, the detective on the case thinks she hears a deaf-mute muttering, Nofar’s beautiful sister finds herself no longer the centre of attention and Lavi falls for Nofar. With the trial looming, Nofar realises she’s painted herself into a corner.

Gundar-Goshen smoothly shifts perspectives between characters telling her story from the point of view of Nofar and Lavi while weaving the backstories of more minor players through her narrative. No one, it seems, is entirely truthful: everyone is guilty of bending the truth one way or another. Gundar-Goshen’s characters are just like us: each has their own agenda; they mean well but truth is sometimes inconvenient. Her observation is merciless:

A deaf-mute beggar stood beside them, hand extended, and they pretended to be blind 

Her depiction of adolescent self-consciousness excruciatingly accurate

Nofar lived in the world as if she were an uninvited guest at a party

All of this is delivered with a smartly knowing wit leavened with compassion. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style – rather like that jacket.

The Braid by Letitia Colombani (transl. Louise Rogers Lalaurie): Take three women

Cover imageLetitia Colombani’s The Braid is one of those elegantly structured novellas that manages to pack a great deal into fewer than two hundred pages. Three women’s stories intersect in a way that none of them can imagine when the book begins. They will remain unknown to each other yet each will have played a crucial role in changing the others’ lives.

Smita is a Dalit in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, an untouchable whose job is to empty the latrines by hand. The ostracism of Dalits from society was outlawed by Mahatma Gandhi yet Smita and her rat-catcher husband continue to be spurned. Smita is determined that her six-year-old daughter won’t suffer the same humiliation and is prepared to go to any lengths to protect her.

Giulia works for her father in Sicily, preparing hair for wig makers in a family business that has been established for generations. When her father is left comatose after an accident, Giulia discovers that all is not what it seems with their finances. Her Sikh lover offers a solution which isn’t welcomed by everyone.

Sarah is a partner in a Montreal law firm, a position hard-won and at great cost. She never mentions her children at work, hiding domestic difficulties and maternal guilt behind a mask of calm capability. Illness cannot be countenanced. When Sarah finds she has cancer she tucks the knowledge away, scheduling her treatment to fit in with work.

Colombani uses the conceit of telling the stories of Smita, Giulia and Sarah through a wig maker, interweaving their three separate narratives into a braid. It’s a device that works well: the wig maker makes a brief appearance at the start and end of the book with the occasional interpolation in between. Each of the stories explores the societies in which these three women live: Smita’s abject poverty, locked into a caste system sustained by corruption and lack of education; resistance to Giulia’s innovation in traditional, male dominated Sicilian society; Sarah’s discovery that the glass ceiling hasn’t been entirely shattered in her intensely competitive law firm where loyalty counts for nothing. All three women changes their lives for the better on their own terms, facing apparently insurmountable problems with courage and determination. It’s a heartening story, fable-like in its telling but not sugar-coated, and an appealing one. Proof, yet again, of the power of the novella – not that I needed it.

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (transl. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah): What’s real and what’s not.

Cover imagePeirene Press’s books are never anything but interesting. It’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has a knack for seeking out unusual, thought-provoking fiction. For 2019 her theme is There Be Monsters. Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave follows a nineteenth-century anthropological expedition which goes horribly wrong, posing the question who are the monsters?

Iax Agolasky, a young bookish Russian, is overjoyed when renowned French explorer Jean Moltique takes him on as an assistant in his quest to find the ‘children of the shadows’ thought by Moltique to be the descendants of an ancient Anatolian tribe. Moltique appoints a crew to accompany them before they set off into the north-western Russian wilderness in May 1819 on an expedition which will stretch into 1822. It will be a year before, Moltique and Agolasky discover their tribe, shooting the first member to appear before them, by which time Moltique has been revealed as vainglorious and egotistical, his crew a bunch of ruffians. They set up camp at the mouth of the cave from which the creature, seemingly a wild boar with a human face, has appeared. Agolasky is mortified by what has happened. It is his patience and empathy which leads the tribe to eventually show themselves. These are not fabulous creatures but children displaying a variety of physical characteristics which society finds abhorrent, each with a story to tell. As Agolasky gains their trust, he becomes increasingly fearful for their safety, both from Moltique whose ambition for fame will bring the glare of publicity and from the men who see a more sinister opportunity to make money. As the years wear on, Moltique loses his wits while Agolasky falls in love and the men continue to plot until, three years after the expedition began, it’s brought to a violent end.

Sammalkorpi uses the conceit of a fragmented diary to tell her story, exploring themes of reality and unreality, and what it is to be human. The reaction to the children, left by loving parents for their own protection, found abandoned or rescued from freak shows, is all too believable. Sammalkorpi is careful to engage our sympathy for them, telling their stories through Agolasky, an empathetic and idealistic character, distraught at Moltique’s exploitation and the brutality of the men. In the diary’s final entry, written in 1868 days before his death, Agolasky reiterates the vividness of his memories while questioning their reliability. As the postscript with which Sammalkorpi cleverly ends her book suggests:

However hard we try to capture our experiences, we still cannot be totally sure about what is real and what is illusionary.

Not my favourite Peirene – that’s still Marie Suzun’s Her Father’s Daughter closely followed by And the Wind Sees All – but certainly an original one, well worth reading.

The Capital by Robert Menasse (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Better in than out

Cover imageI’m sharing the last stop on The Capital‘s blog tour with Reader Dad. I’m not one for blog tours – this may well be both my first and last – but I couldn’t say no to this one. If you’ve been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you’ll be in no doubt as to which side of the Brexit divide I belong. Robert Menasse’s sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated faults before bringing it back to the values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club.

The Capital opens with a pig running through the streets of Brussels, catching the astonished eyes of many of its characters. Martin Susman, who will conceive the idea for the ill-fated Jubilee Project, spots it from his apartment window. Auschwitz survivor Dave de Vriend sees it just as he’s about to leave his apartment for the last time. Fenia Xenopoulou catches sight of it from the restaurant where she’s hoping to finangle a transfer to another department. When Martin returns from Auschwitz, shocked at its commercialisation, he hits on an idea to rejuvenate the ideals of the Commission via the jubilee celebration he’s been asked to devise, putting the camp at its centre in counterpoint to the populist nationalism which has infected Europe since 2008. Fenia spots what she thinks is a winner but in a masterly piece of out-maneuvering, finds herself on the back foot and the celebration plans in tatters. Meanwhile, Inspector Brunfaut is trying to track down the pig, now a media star, while puzzling over why he’s been told to drop a murder investigation and Matek Oswiecki tries to dodge the consequences of what may well have been a botched assassination. These many and varied characters crisscross each other’s paths over a long hot summer in which migrants are heading for Germany.

A multitude of shifting character perspectives coupled with a good deal of information about EU institutions to absorb results in a slow start but patience pays off with The Capital. Swipes are taken at bloated bureaucracy, political manouevering and empire building but ultimately, it’s the founding values of the European Commission which are at the heart of this novel, that never again should Europe be faced with the horrors threatened by populist nationalism. Professor Erhart gives full voice to these ideals in a speech which horrifies his think tank audience, peopled with the self-important and self-interested, and would send Brexiteers running and screaming for the door. It’s a wide-ranging novel, at times wryly funny at others almost slapstick, but like all good satire it has some very serious points to make both about the EU and the forces that have taken hold in Europe since the financial crash. Rather like the institution its satirizing, The Capital is not without faults – some of its threads remained tangled for me – but there’s much to enjoy, bittersweet though it is in more ways than one.

If you’d like to catch up with previous posts on the blog tour, including Lizzy Siddal’s interview with The Capital‘s translator, Jaime Bulloch, here’s a list of links:

Winstondad’s Blog

David’s Book World

Nudge Books

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

Cover imageI’ve yet to read The Door, Madga Szabó’s best known novel, and I made the mistake of reading Iza’s Ballad on holiday, failing to give it the quiet attention it needed. Nothing to distract me from Katalin Street, enjoyable or otherwise. First published in 1969, it explores the aftermath of the Second World War through three families, neighbours on the eponymous street with its lovely views of the Danube.

Henriette Held arrives on Katalin Street in 1934 when she’s six years old. There are two strange girls in what’s to be her bedroom and a slovenly woman standing in the hall with her mother. Later she joins the girls and a boy in the garden. This is Henriette’s introduction to Irén, Blanka and Bálint, her new neighbours. The beautifully behaved Irén couldn’t be more different from her sister Blanka, always in trouble yet much-loved, while Bálint is the quiet centre of their small group. Henriette’s father is Jewish, the holder of a gold medal for bravery won in the Great War which protects him until the German occupation in 1944 when he and her mother disappear on what should have been a day of joy, the day of Irén and Bálint’s engagement. Bálint’s father does all he can to protect Henriette but a horrible coincidence of circumstances results in her murder. When the war is over, the city finds itself under a different occupation. Irén becomes a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps; Bálint becomes a doctor working in the same hospital where Blanka finds work as an administrator but he’s returned from the war a changed man and is later imprisoned. By 1968, Katalin Street has long since been converted into social housing but still maintains its lure.

Szabó’s novel begins with a section anchoring it in Katalin Street before briefly visiting an unnamed island where Blanka lives with her husband and his family. From there, she arranges her narrative around a succession of significant dates, telling her characters’ stories from different perspectives. I found it a little difficult to get into at first but once the more linear narrative took off the story flows easily. Henriette continues to appear after her death, regularly visiting Katalin Street and its scattered denizens, dismayed at the changes time and events have wrought in them. It’s a technique that could easily have backfired but Szabó handles it beautifully, even injecting a little humour as Henriette’s parents regress horribly when they encounter their own parents in the afterlife. A quiet aching melancholy runs through this beautiful expressed novel, a yearning for a lost world, and its ending is heart-wrenching. Given that it was published in 1969 when Hungary was still a communist country, I wondered how that had effected Szabó’s writing of it: how much of what she wanted to say was explicit, how much was left to the reader to infer.