Tag Archives: Peirene Press

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Tiger in the Tiger Pit to And the Wind Sees All

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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Kate has set us something a little different this month. We’re all starting from the point at which each of us ended last month. For me that was Janette Turner Hospital’s The Tiger in the Tiger Pit which I had to confess I’d read so long ago I could barely remember it but Google came to the rescue reminding me that it’s about a fraught family celebration.

I’m using the author’s unusual last name as my jumping off point, linking to Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing, which is set in a hospital, about a clinical researcher brought uncomfortably face-to-face with the disease he’s studying.

Workplaces rarely seem to feature in fiction although I’ve read several novels set in restaurants including Merrett Tierce’s Love Me Back narrated by Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse.

Kim Thúy’s lovely Mãn also features a restaurant, owned by the husband of a Vietnamese woman who has left her homeland to marry him without ever having met him, a match made for security rather than love.

Which leads me to The Refugees written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over twenty years, Nguyen’s stories explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances and its legacy.

From there it’s a very short leap to Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ breach, a collection of stories based on interviews with residents of the Calais refugee camp which came to be known as the Jungle, now disbanded.

breach is published by Peirene Press who produce just a handful of books a year, one of which was Guđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All in 2018. It takes place over the brief bicycle ride that Kata takes to the village hall in preparation for the evening’s concert, taking in the stories of the villagers who catch sight of her out of the corner of their eyes

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from the familiar fictional territory of family reunions, secrets and lies to a two-minute bicycle ride around an Icelandic village. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the routes other bloggers take from each month’s jumping off point, although this month we’ll be starting from entirely different places. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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.

And the Wind Sees All by by Guđmundur Andri Thorsson (transl. Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery)

Cover imageGuđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All is the third in Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. I reviewed Soviet Milk here earlier in the year but chickened out of Shadows on the Tundra, billed as Lithuanian survival literature. I’m sure it’s very good, I’ve yet to read anything published by Peirene that isn’t, but I fancied something a little more cheerful. And the Wind Sees All takes place over the brief bicycle ride that Kata takes to Valeyri’s village hall in preparation for the evening’s concert, taking in the stories of the villagers who catch sight of her out of the corner of their eyes.

Today is Midsummer’s Day and Kata is determined the concert will be a success. Mounting her bike in her blue polka-dot dress, she remembers the man who loved her and who she loved. Each of the villagers she passes is preoccupied: the rich man, friendly enough, who keeps himself to himself remembers the wife he neglected; the village poet feels a poem on the tip of his pen which won’t quite come; a woman remembers the rock star father of her child and the perfect guitar solo he played for her while her husband thinks about seabirds; another recounts a disturbing dream to her host, the village historian whose wife brings in the money. There are a multitude of secrets kept in Valeyri, many regrets revisited, loneliness endured and some quiet happiness, not to mention gossip, enjoyed.

The villagers’ reveries, memories and reflections read almost like a chain of closely intertwined short stories through which Kata flits on her bike. Their overlapping and interlinked histories are all relayed in a mere two-minute journey, each of them quietly pulling the reader into their lives. There’s humour, too – some of it gentle, some of it dark. Thorsson’s writing is often strikingly beautiful – poetic yet understated, the repetition of phrases adding a rhythm and musicality. There are dozens of quotes I could have pulled out but here are some of my favourites:

The mist. It comes in off the sea and slides along the spit. Every summer’s day, it creeps up the fiord as evening approaches, noses around the slopes and the foothills and slips into the village, where it curls around the boats in the harbour and licks the corners of the houses, before lifting itself 

He felt the sun hot on his temples, intrusive as an overfriendly relation

She hears the solo in her head, enters it, stays there for a moment engulfed in the bright glow of its magnetic chaos, soars… She asks Guđjón if he would like more coffee

All of this is expertly translated by Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery. The idea of a joint Peirene Stevns Translation Prizetranslation fascinates me. I can’t imagine how they set about it but the result is a rather lovely piece of writing.

Which leads me to the launch of the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize. Lest you be thinking ‘yet another prize’, this one’s different. It’s to be awarded to a previously unpublished translator who will get a grant of £3,500 plus a residency in which to translate a novel to be published by Peirene in 2020. Details are here. I like the sound of a prize which aims to foster translating talent, So often translators are overlooked but without them us monolinguals wouldn’t be able to read nearly as widely as we can.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (transl. Jen Calleja): Down but not out

Cover imagePeirene’s novellas come with a brief foreword from Meike Ziervogel, a short personal comment explaining why this particular book caught her eye. The one prefacing Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal ends ‘This book will make you think’. I’ve yet to read anything published by Peirene which hasn’t done that. Hensel’s book is the story of how Gabriela von Haßlau became homeless, fitting neither into the old GDR nor the new unified Germany.

Gabriela is the daughter of a surgeon, a man who reached the heady heights of Chief Medical Officer in an East German town only to lose his reputation to drink and a vocal disillusionment with the state. Her mother sacrificed her own career for her husband’s, frantically cleaning their mansion-like villa until he hires some illicit help. These two embark on hosting raucous parties packed with artists and the more exciting of Ernst’s colleagues but never the obedient plodders. When Ernst rumbles his wife’s affair with one of the actors he’s so delighted with, he divorces her and takes to drink with an even greater vengeance. On top of all this, his daughter is a disappointment to him, failing at her violin lessons, cavorting with the grubby Katka and only keeping her place at school thanks to his influence and the red ‘I’ on her records denoting a child of the intelligentsia. By the time she leaves school, university places are reserved for the children of workers. Instead, she finds herself assigned an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer at which she fails dismally. When she pushes her boss into the canal, two mysterious men arrive eager to help her fulfil her dreams of becoming a writer. In the summer of 1994, Gabriela  scratches out her story under the bridge across the canal she and Katka once danced naked alongside. She determinedly separates herself from the filthier vagrants but as the winter sets in survival becomes harder. Then things take an unexpected turn.

Henshel’s novella begins with a vividly drawn word picture as Gabriela delights in acquiring a blank piece of paper on which she can write her story. From her disappointed father to the two be-suited individuals, nefariously intent on employing her writing skills, we learn that the men she meets either want to contain or exploit her but Gabriela refuses to play ball. Henshel’s writing is often striking – Gabriela’s mother’s grief is ‘a siren [which] wailed from inside her’ – and her characters vividly realised. Katka is a particular delight. There’s a good deal of humour in this novella but there are also moments of melancholy as winter drags Gabriela closer to ‘the last hole’. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the ending but the journey that led to it was certainly a rewarding one.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Not as sweet as you might think

the-empress-and-the-cakeGiven that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.

Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in  grim cycle of binging and purging.

Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes: Nuanced, empathetic stories from the Calais Jungle

Cover imagebreach is based on Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ exchanges with refugees who have lived in the camp known as the Jungle and the people of Calais where it’s based. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press commissioned the book to, in her words, ‘distil [their] stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.’ The result is a collection that is both heartrending and enlightening. It’s the first in a series called Peirene Now! from a publisher who already has quite a reputation for fiction in translation.

In the first of the eight stories comprising the collection an unnamed Sudanese narrator ponders the fractured dynamics of his small group as they wait for the right conditions for the eleven-minute dash to the French border. The following six explore the world of the refugee camp from the many and varied points of view of those who live in and around it. In ‘The Terrier’ for instance, Eloise, happy to supplement her income by taking in a young Kurdish boy and his sister, struggles with suspicions fanned by her less tolerant friends but is won over after hearing their story and visiting the Jungle to see it for herself. From the young Ethiopian woman who wishes that volunteers would understand that she wants to dress fashionably, to the Afghan who has compromised his UK asylum application hoping to get home to see his sick mother; from the Kurd who when warned about walking on the motorway joyfully tells a British policeman that he’s illegal, too, to the young people smuggler keeping a close eye on the his boss’ weaknesses – everyone has an opinion and a story to tell. Set in the UK, the final story bookends the first, picking up Alghali who we last met counting down those eleven minutes, now learning English from a ninety-four-year-old convinced that ‘Europe is being overrun’ but who always offers Alghali a biscuit. It ends with news of the Paris attack.

Used as we’ve become to wrenching pictures of refugees rescued from appallingly flimsy crafts or walking through baking temperatures only to be turned back by soldiers and barbed wire or, in the heady days of the German welcome, greeted with teddy bears and welcome packages, it’s easy to see this crisis in easy shades of right and wrong. Popoola and Holmes offer a more nuanced view filtered thought the experiences of the people involved. The camp is a microcosm of society. There are places of worship, a school and a hospital in the making. There’s money to be made: shops and cafes prosper as do, on the dark side of the camp economy, prostitution and people smuggling. Refugees are good, bad and in between. Volunteers may be well-meaning but they can be irritating in their assumptions of what is best, or in the case of a white dreadlocked Muslim convert, unrealistic idealisation. Through their empathetic, vividly written stories Popoola and Holmes offer a multifaceted insight into the experience of refugees and our response to them. Part of the Jungle was bulldozed this year and there’s much talk of the rest of it being demolished by the end of 2016. It’s an intractable problem with no simple, obvious solution but a little more compassion would not go amiss.

If you’d like to know more about the background to breach, you might like to read Melissa’s interview with Holmes over at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.

The next Peirine Now! project is a Brexit novel by Anthony Cartwright, due to be published in June 2017. The funding for this one is to be crowd sourced. If you’d like to make a pledge, thereby securing yourself a copy, just click here.

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun (transl. Adriana Hunter): A sharply poignant gem

Cover imageAlthough I’ve read several books published by Peirene – including the dazzling poetic White Hunger, set in a savagely cold Finnish winter – this is the first I’ve reviewed. For readers who haven’t yet come across them, Peirene publish novellas in translation, dubbed by the Times Literary Supplement ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, a quote which they proudly include in their marketing material – and who wouldn’t? They publish three books a year each fitting a particular theme; Her Father’s Daughter is part of the ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ bundle. It’s Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five, and it’s an autobiographical one.

The eponymous daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, is just over four years old when the novel opens. She lives in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother, regularly grumbled at by her grandmother. As the war she’s heard so much about on the radio draws to a close, it seems that her father will be coming home, something she finds deeply unsettling. When she visits him in hospital she’s horrified to find herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, when her father comes home he’s appalled at her spoilt ways, insisting she learns how to behave and resorting to hitting her when she fails to do so. The child turns in upon herself, closes down her emotions, watches her parents and comes to a new understanding of the world. When one day she sees the first flash of tenderness in her father, she decides to become the daughter he wants her to be. So begins a new relationship which tips the child’s balance away from her mother towards her father. All seems well, but there’s a secret she has to tell, something that happened in Normandy when he was away, something that her mother and her grandmother insist must have been a dream. When she reveals it, not understanding its significance, her world explodes all over again.

Her Father’s Daughter is written from the child’s point of view in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose. The sensuous intimacy between the mother and daughter is vividly conveyed, contrasting shockingly with the violence of the father’s outbursts. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. Her bewilderment at the unpredictable, puzzling behaviour of the adults around her is discomfiting, at times heartrending and made all the more so by the knowledge that this is an autobiographical novel. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing. The ending, which has the adult France visited by an insight into her feelings for her father, seemed a little unconvincing but given those autobiographical roots, I can only hope that it was heartfelt.

I read Her Father’s Daughter just before the launch of Women in Translation Month which several bloggers I visit have been eagerly anticipating for some time. Should you want to know more you might like to explore #WITMonth on Twitter or take a quick trip to JacquiWine’s Journal where you’ll find a page devoted to the initiative, chock full of great reviews, .