Category Archives: Women in Translation

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the Canal is a novella, published by the much appreciated Peirene Press and sent to subscribers as the third in their East and West Series: Looking Both Ways. In this book we are brought to East Germany before and after reunification, to explore how a young woman fails to find her way in either. The bleakness of the Communist East offers little to a free spirit, and reunification with West Germany is suffocating her hometown. Where is a young woman to be? First published in German in 1994, four years after the reunification, Dance by the Canal still has a great deal to tell us about Europe today.

The Story of Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haßlau grows up as an unloved and untalented child, in a fictional town called Leibnitz in East Germany. Gabriela is a disappointment and distraction to her parents. Her father is a self-important surgeon finding the restrictions of the East German state hampers his ability to impress people. Her mother is scarcely interested in her daughter and when the couple begin entertaining, against the wishes of the state, she begins an affair. The marriage disintegrates as Gabriela’s father is removed from his post.

Led astray at school, Gabriela begins to distance herself from her family and the future organised for her by the state. She begins an apprenticeship at a machinery factory. From there she is rescued in a shady deal. In exchange for reporting on her friends she is to be a spy, and when this doesn’t work out she ends up on the street, sleeping under the canal bridge.

Bleak because there seems no answer for Gabriela, and she cannot help herself. Neither the East nor the reunified Germany can cope with her.

Humour

There is a great deal of wit in this novel, despite its rather bleak tone and ambiguous ending. Her father, a vascular surgeon, rebukes the child for crying when the tangles in her hair are pulled.

– Think of all the people with varicose veins, Father would say, you don’t see them crying. (12)

And here is the vivid way in which Gabriela describes the work she was required to do at the I-Plant: filing iron plates.

Five kilograms of iron, heave up, press to bib, clamp, screw down, file, position, up and down, thirty-degree angle, release vice, hold the plate tightly, turn the plate, retighten, file, up down up down, only fucking’s better, rotate, change, take off plate, set aside, check with bare fingertips, five kilograms of iron, heave up, clamp, turn it the other way, nose wipe, iron stinks, bad filing cuts into flesh, five kilograms is women’s weight, arms like a heavyweight, the screech of drilling, shriek of milling, screech of grinding, file by hand, up down, the stack of plates shrinks, the other grows, […] after eight hours I don’t know who I am. (86)

And there are some great characters. The other down-and-outs who drink at the Three Roses could have emerged from the Commedia del Arte. Semmelweis-Marrie, Rampen-Paul, Klunzer-Lupo and Noppe. The wonderful partner in crime from her schools days, Katka. Various teachers. Her mother’s hammy lover. The sinister Queck and Manfred who end up drowned …

Gabriela is the narrator of the novella. From the writing emerge the sense of things happening to Gabriela, her lack of control over the events, her escapes and the bleakness of her life.

Kerstin Hensel

Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in what was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. She studied in Leipzig, medicine and literature. She publishes poetry and plays as well as novels. Dance by the Canal was her first novel.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, published in German in 1994, and in translation in 2017 by Peirene. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja

For another review of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, go to the blog ALifeinBooks.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are three recommendations from those I have already included.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Berofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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International Translation Day 2017

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. It’s a good day to celebrate their work and it’s a good day to focus on books in translation. We need to do this from time to time because books in translation do not form a very large part of our reading diet – just 4%. Not much is published, not much is read.

Fiction in Translation

Daniel Hahn is a translator. He suggests that literary translations are founded on these principles:

It assumes that just because you’re from Here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reading stories from There. That it’s possible to strip a story of its language, wrest it thousands of miles, re-clothe it in a strange new language, and keep its essence intact – because stories can be citizens of the world, just like we can. That just because something is particular doesn’t mean it’s not universal. (A basic principle for all great literature, surely?) That openness to other literatures – and other narratives, and lives, and worlds – doesn’t threaten our own, it strengthens and enlivens it.

[From Carrying Across, in The Author, Summer 2017].

Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Of that 4% about 20% is by women. Partly to correct this Meytal Radzinski who writes the Biblibio blog promoted events with the hashtag #WITMonth: Women in Translation month for August, and encouraged people to join in. This year it was very successful again. There were articles in advance that included lists of recommendations. Here’s an example: 13 books by women writers to add to your Reading List for #WITMonth from the Booksatchel Blog. And here’s another list from Jacquiwine’s blog for the same event.

And recently (13th September) the long list for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has been published. You can find it here.

These events and posts feature many recommended books in translation.

On Bookword

To maintain the impetus of #WITMonth I announced in August my project to read at least one book by a woman in translation every month and to write a response here on Bookword blog. These are my reasons:

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

I will promote women in translation over the next year or so and I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours creating barriers not making connections across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

Here are recommendations from the last 12 months, some of which appear in the linked lists and posts above:

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I’m planning to read these novels very soon:

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, (1968) translated by Christopher Middleton.

Go, Went, Gone by Jennifer Erpenbeck, (2017) translated by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Tell us which novels in translation would you recommend from your reading?

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A dark tale, inventively told, chilling because the reader is prevented from pausing. The pages must be turned, the end must be encountered. Fever Dream is my choice for September’s Women in Translation, written by the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. It was also chosen for the short list of the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

Disturbing

The framing of this novel requires the reader’s attention in order to make sense of what is happening. Amanda is lying in bed in a clinic, and she is dying. Beside her is David, a young boy. The narrative is told through their conversation. David’s contributions are in Italics. Here is the opening paragraph.

They’re like worms.

What kind of worms?

Like worms, all over.

It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Worms in the body?

Yes, in the body.

Earthworms?

No, another kind of worms.

It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms came into being.

Why?

Because it’s important, it’s very important for all of us. (1-2)

So Amanda retells the story of how she came to be in the emergency clinic, prompted by the boy, who frequently draws attention to the important thing.

The story begins when Amanda met David’s mother, Carla. But she must report what Carla told her about what happened to David before that. The reader must follow these strands, the conversation at the bedside, and the story of how Amanda became ill and Carla’s story about David. And there is another player, Nina. Nina is Amanda’s daughter, and in danger.

Concentrating hard, the reader discovers that Amanda and her daughter Nina were on holiday in the area when they were befriended by Carla. But Carla has a dark story about her son David and the reader must stay in this complex narration to find out about the important thing.

There is transmigration, unexplained events involving horses, plastic liquid containers, sandals, pools and streams, witches …

Rescue Distance

It’s a disturbing story, playing on one’s fears as a parent. Amanda is always aware of what she calls her rescue distance from Nina.

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should. (16)

The concept is well known in Argentina. Indeed the title of the novel in Spanish is Distanca de Rescate. I think it would be a better English title as well: Rescue Distance. Fever Dream implies an ending that goes, and then I woke up and it was all just a terrible dream.

Amanda is not able to stay within rescue distance of her daughter for, as she tells David, the sequence of events result in the condition that brings her to the clinic. The anxieties, fears, terrors of being a parent drive this novella.

The darker secret is not the monstrous child, the woman with healing powers in the green house, the horse that escapes or the husbands. The frequent mention of water is the clue.

The important thing is that David was poisoned by the water in the stream and Amanda and Nina were soaked while they watched men unload water in plastic drums. As David says,

It’s a very bad thing. (73)

The world is being poisoned. Here is Amanda’s husband returning to the city, and the final sentences of the novella.

He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t see the soy field, the streams that crisscross the dry plots of land, the miles of open fields empty of livestock, the tenements and factories as he reaches the city. He doesn’t notice that the return trip has grown slower and slower. That there are too many cars, cars and more cars covering every asphalt nerve. Or that the transit is stalled, paralysed for hours, smoking and effervenescent. He doesn’t see the important thing: the rope finally slack, like a lit fuse, somewhere; the motionless scourge about to erupt. (151)

Reading this novel is not a pleasant experience. But its twisted narration when unpicked reveals a brutal truth, an inconvenient truth as Al Gore called it, that we may not be able escape.

Some links to reviewers’ comments

Here’s a review in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino from January this year: The Sick Thrill of “Fever Dream”.

And here’s a review on the blog Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The Guardian review of Fever Dreams, by Chris Power, expressed admiration for the craft of the writer in cranking up the tension and its clever structure.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, published by Oneworld Publication in 2017. 151pp. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi

Bookword has reached the 1970s in the Decades Project with this novel from Egypt. I read Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi when it was first published in English in the 1980s. Like many readers I was shocked by the brutality and suffering in Firdaus’s story. It took its place among the important literature of the so-called second feminist wave.

In the project we have moved from Anglo-centric literature to a novel in translation and originally written in Arabic.

The Story

Woman at Point Zero is introduced as a true story, and framed by a psychiatrist’s visit to a woman’s prison where Firdaus is awaiting execution. The psychiatrist, requests an interview with the condemned woman, but she is refused until her last night. She summons the doctor and tells her story.

Firdaus was born with two disadvantages: being a female and to parents who lived in poverty. She lives her whole life on the margins. She is orphaned while still young, and then taken by her uncle to Cairo where he sends her to primary school. On his marriage she boards at secondary school, which she loves. But on graduating she is married off to an old man, a relative of her uncle’s wife. The old man is one in a long line of men who treat her badly, exploiting her sexually, forcing her into domestic servitude and beating her on any excuse. She runs away and is rescued by the next abuser, and the pattern continues until she is rescued and groomed by a madame.

She leaves this comfortable life when she understands that she is as exploited by the woman as by the men, sets herself up as a prostitute, and for the first time knows financial independence and wealth. But the life still depends upon men, so she gives it up to work in an office, but is betrayed again by a man she fell in love with and who only wanted to exploit her sexually for free, she returns to prostitution.

But this is threatened by a gangster who offers her protection, from his own violence. She kills him. She has reached the point where there is nothing, point zero. Her freedom is to die.

Why Firdaus’s story matters

Her story is recognizable in the lives of all women, despite the novel being set in Egypt, despite being written 40 years ago, and despite her career choice. The abuse is recognizable in our own society today. Women still suffer from violent abuse, and we still struggle with residual beliefs that women’s role is to service men.

At the time it was published in English Woman at Point Zero reinforced everything that the second wave of feminism was uncovering. It was passed around and discussed widely in my circle.

Towards the end of her account Firdaus tells us about the bleak prospects for women to escape persecution.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.

Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the cruellest suffering of women. (117-8)

Her feminism is best understood as a criticism of capitalism, supported by Islam in parts of the world.

Nawal el Saadawi

Nawal el Saadawi by Mansour Nasiri via WikiCommons

Born in 1931 at 86 Nawal el Saadawi is still alive, and still speaking out. She was trained in medicine and psychiatry and Firdaus’s story is based on the life of a woman she visited in prison. Nawal el Saadawi worked for improved help for women in Egypt, as Director General for Public Health Education. Women who stand out often become enemies of prominent men and in 1981 she herself was arrested and imprisoned by Sadat’s regime. She was released after his assassination later that year. She worked for a time in the US but has returned to Egypt where she is still in the public eye, for example she was among the protestors in Tahrir Square in 2011.

Early in the novel Firdaus, still a child, suffers genital cutting. The practice of genital mutilation has only recently been taken seriously in this country and appears to be acceptable in other parts of the world. Nawal el Saadawi is one of the most distinguished voices in the campaigns against FGM.

Her second novel was published in1976 God Dies by the Nile, and her study of Arabic women, The Hidden Face of Eve, a year later. In 2016 she explained how hard it was to get her voice heard she says this:

The colonial capitalist powers are mainly English- or French-speaking … I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers. [quotation from Wikipedia, from an article in the New African]

Woman at Point Zero takes its place in my plans to read more Women in Translation (#WIT) as well as in the Decades Project.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. 142 pp

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, her third husband.

The Decades Project

The idea for the Decades Project originated in my library’s Reading Passport scheme. I have adapted it by selecting a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it on this blog.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have not yet decided what to read in September for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1990s (October) and 2000s (November).

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

How many novels written in Danish have you read? How many novels by Danish women have you read? And how many have you read that have been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017? I have just read Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and so I can now answer ‘one’ to all three questions.

This quirky novel by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra is the next in my Women in Translation project. It was selected because it had good reviews and because of the shortlisting.

The Story

Sonja is in her 40s and living alone in Copenhagen. She is not settled in her life, and feels that she is not doing very well for herself. Sonja translates crime fiction from Swedish into Danish, but is beginning to find that the work cuts her off from other people. Indeed she feels cut off from everyone: her family in the flat and empty landscape of her childhood in Jutland; other people living in Copenhagen; people she meets. She has decided to learn to drive and to reconnect with her sister, Kate, who still lives in Jutland with their parents.

Learning to drive is the metaphor for getting her life more under her control. There are two obstacles: changing gears and her teacher Jytte, who insists on changing gear for her. Sonja also visits a masseuse, Ellen, who interprets Sonja’s body as expressing psychic difficulties with her life. In addition she also suffers from a form of vertigo.

Sonja does not initially confront the energetic and difficult driving instructor, nor her masseuse, nor her school friend Molly who lives a comfortable and duplicitous life, married to a lawyer but restlessly engaged in affairs with other men and remodelling their house.

Sonja appears to be a bit of rabbit, hiding from contact with anything scary, careful to avoid positions that induce vertigo, from engaging with her challenges. But gradually she insists on her own needs: she escapes Ellen’s meditation group, demands a replacement for Jytte, practises writing to her sister before eventually ringing her up. And in the final scene she leaves Molly on the underground and helps an older Jutland woman to find her way. She has begun to reconnect to her past in the alien world of Copenhagen, she has begun to master driving and she will find her way home.

The pleasures of this novel

At first I found it a little tedious to be stuck with this apparently hapless individual, who got into scrapes and seemed unable to act like an adult. But as the novel progressed it was apparent that Sonja’s life was like everyone’s life, and we all fail to assert ourselves at times.

I loved the visual evocation of the driving lessons:

It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile. When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will, and once Jytte forced her to overtake a hot dog cart. They’d been driving around calmly enough, but then they’d come to a place where there was a traffic island on the street. A traffic island and a hot dog cart that was creeping forward. Sonja wasn’t supposed to pass, but people in back became impatient and started honking. “Pass, God damn you, pass!” yelled Jytte, whereupon Sonja crossed over into the lane of oncoming traffic, passed and then turned back into her own lane so quickly that she nearly clipped the hot dog man. He was walking along in front, of course, hauling the cart, “You almost had blood on your hands there,” Jytte said. (13)

And her other encounters are similarly vivid:

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?” (18)

About the fashionable Scandi-noir novels she translates for a living they are all about ‘mutilated women and children…rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land’.

This is anti-Hygge. Sardonic, amusing and without whimsy. And with such accurate observations of life as lived that I often caught myself thinking, ‘yes that’s exactly how I would like to describe that.’ I have hardly captured the pleasures of this novel. For more about this novel and from the author listen to the podcast from March in the Guardian.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016) Pushkin Press. 188 pp

Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

Women in Translation

This is the second book in my year of Women in Fiction in Translation.

Fiction in English does not hold the monopoly on quality. A great deal of excellent fiction is written in other languages. If the job of fiction is to take you to new worlds I want to explore those other worlds written in another language as well as those in English. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Promoting fiction in translation is part of my intention for this blog.

Fiction by men does not hold the monopoly on quality either. Promoting fiction by women is another purpose of my blog. Women’s fiction gets less space in the printed media than men’s. See VIDA statistics for how much less.

As books by women in translation form a disproportionately small proportion (about one quarter) of that 4% I have put these statistics together and will promote women in translation over the next year or so.

I am doing this at a time when popular culture favours raising barriers not making connections, across language and gender. I hope you will be inspired by some of my choices.

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Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Oh this book! I can’t have been very old when I read it, perhaps in my late teens. But however young it made a BIG impression on me. First it was written in French. It was about being very cool on the Mediterranean coast. And it featured some very adult themes about a father with very modern ideas bout his relationships with women and about a young girl just coming into womanhood.

I think I believed that this was how my ideal life would be, divided between sophisticated and cultured Paris and the charms of the summer spent in a villa on the French Mediterranean Sea. Such were the effects of Bonjour Tristesse.

Bonjour Tristesse 

‘A vulgar, sad little book’ said the Spectator, noting that it was written by a precocious 18-year old.

I was, of course very naïve, very impressionable and very self-absorbed when I read it. As I read it again I can see that the father was amoral and his behaviour to his daughter plainly unhealthy. Cecile, who narrates the story, was utterly self-absorbed, which was very affirming. Here is the famous opening:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me. (9)

In the 60s precocious and self-absorbed was what we did. We believed we were the only generation to have ever been young, and we made a thing of it. That sober observer Philip Larkin said something about it in Annus Mirabilis. He was writing about 1963. The French were ahead of us. Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954.

I excuse this belief in the importance of our generation because we were young and things were changing; we lived through some momentous changes in our social lives, and believed that the future was ours. In the event we had to give way to another generation who believed much the same. And like us they paid no mind to the sensibilities of their parents’ generation.

The Story of Bonjour Tristesse

Cecile has been living for two years with her widowed father Raymond in Paris, leading an exciting life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They plan two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Soon after arriving Cecile meets Cyril, a young man also en vacances on the Cote d’Azur, and the two form an attachment.

This blissful idyll is interrupted when Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Anne arrives and a short battle takes place between her and Elsa, and the younger woman looses. Anne announces that she and Raymond will marry, and she begins to take Cecile in hand, requiring her break off with Cyril and to study for several hours a day in preparation for her examinations. Cecile becomes very jealous of Anne and determined to come between her and Raymond.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity by getting Cyril and Elsa to appear to be a couple. Despite some reservations about her plans the balance gradually tips in favour of Cecile and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge of the road at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, they soon pick up their old lives.

Rereading Bonjour Tristesse

I hardly remember reading to the end of this novel when I first read it. It was the opening sections that really appealed to me. Times have changed. I no longer see Bonjour Tristesse as a celebration of youth, or of the unconventional life of the French intellectual elite. It’s rather a sad family drama in which the mother is absent and her absence brings misery to everyone. But oh, those opening pages, I reread with such nostalgia.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring. It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks. (10)

There are disputes about the translation of this novel. I read the classic 1954 translation by Irene Ash. Some say that it is not a good translation, not least because some lines were omitted. The controversy can be explored in Jacquwine’s Journal in September 2016 (and don’t miss the very long discussion in the comments) and in Rachel Cooke piece in the Guardian called The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

There was a film, of course. David Niven took the role of Raymond, Deborah Kerr was Anne and Jean Seberg was Cecile. It was directed in 1956 by Otto Preminger.

Women in Translation

I chose Bonjour Tristesse because I intend to read more Women in Translation – #WIT. I had scheduled the post for 14th July so it is also a celebration of Bastille Day and all things French. Women’s fiction is always good to promote as it gets less space in the printed media than men’s. And translated fiction also gets a poor deal. And I want to promote and enjoy connections with cultures across the world, despite the popular trend appearing to be in the opposite direction.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. I read it in the original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

Over to you

Have you read Bonjour Tristesse? What effects did it have on you? Have you any suggestions for further reading of women in translation?

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