Tag Archives: Peirene Press

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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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

This novella, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, begins in the parched landscape of a Middle Eastern country, or perhaps of Afghanistan, in the shadow of mountains. A family is struggling to make a living from the orange grove, against the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors of the family.

The novella

The Orange Grove was written by a Canadian writer, who is also a theatre director and actor. It was translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Peirene Press in the East and West Series.

Larry Tremblay seems to invite the reader to share his struggle to understand participation in war and violence. The novella concludes in a North American city, where a theatre teacher, Michael, is staging a play about war and violence. Among his student actors is Aziz, a twin, now twenty, who grew up alongside the orange grove. Michael and Aziz struggle to find the ending for the play that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Aziz’s experiences in particular, and the reality of its aftermath.

He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)

The story of the twins, Aziz and Ahmed, attempts to bring us closer to such circumstances from which families were unable to escape. The father and grandfather of the twins tend the orange grove. One night the grandparents’ house is bombed and they are killed. Soulayed arrives preaching revenge, and demands that one of the twins is prepared by his father for a suicide mission on a base on the other side of the mountain. Ahmed is chosen. But Aziz has a terminal disease and their mother asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place.

The novella follows what happens after one twin leaves with the suicide belt to cross the mountain and how eventually the other twin goes to North America. He decides to become an actor, hearing so many voices in his head. Through his difficulties in helping Michael conclude his play he retells his experiences of the aftermath and dilemmas he and his family faced, especially when the truth about the target of the mission was revealed.

He addresses the audience at the end of the play.

‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)

You cannot fail to be moved by this story. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press publisher, said ‘this story made me cry. … This story reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’. We cannot fully understand individual experiences of the horrors of the world. But we can hear. And we can know that all refugees begin by being forced to leave their homeland, through violence, often committed for revenge or to create unrest and more violence. A thousand stories, not all ending well. Not all heard.

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2013 in French, 2015 in English) Peirene Press 2017. 138pp

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

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Post-War Novels

Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.

In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.

Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.

  • Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
  • Marghanita Laski The Village
  • Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter

Survival and guilt

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314

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The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.

Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.

Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.

Social Change

The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp

This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.

For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.

The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.

A reunited or divided families

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp

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It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.

Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.

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Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.

Over to you

Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?

 

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Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.

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The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil 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 bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

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My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November

 

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The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

The third in Peirene Press’s fairy tale series, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift is my final choice for August: #WITMonth, women in translation month. I’ve been enjoying picking up lots of ideas for reading women in translation. This is another intriguing novella from Europe, this time from Austria.

278 cover of Empress

The Story

It begins with cakes, and the empress.

She was inspecting the pink and green custard slices, the glazed tarts and fancy meringues piled high in the window of the patisserie. Her dress touched the floor, with only the toes of her shoes poking out. The dress was black and woollen, and around her shoulders sat a black lace mantilla, whose dipped hem was tucked between her armpits. (13)

The anonymous narrator is inveigled by this older woman, Frau Hauenembs, into sharing a cake in her flat in Vienna. The narrator has a continuous battle with food and has not had cake for years, but she is also easily led. Frau Hauenembs’s flat is full of late Austro-Hungarian stuff, and looked after by Ida, an overweight but dedicated servant/housekeeper. Something strange is going on. Soon the narrator is ensnared by this odd couple and participates in a plot to steal a rabbit press (see later), then to replace the head of the assassin Lucheni, and then to steal a cocaine syringe that once belonged to the Empress Elisabeth. Gradually the narrator becomes more and more embroiled in Frau Hauenembs’s schemes and way of life, moving in with her, injecting her with cocaine, winning the Sissi lookalike competition, and even wearing housecoats as Frau Hauenembs requests. In the final paragraph it is clear that another victim is going to go through the same process.

The Empress

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Frau Hauenembs is and isn’t the Empress Elisabeth. This is a fairy tale. In addition to the objects that are nefariously acquired, she adopts many of the behaviours of the original empress: she is tall, has a 16 inch waist, eats very little, keeps very slim, rarely sits down, has a dog and appropriately an imperious style with Ida and the narrator.

In Frau Hauenembs’s flat the narrator notices : … several pictures of the young Empress Elisabeth, including a small copy of the famous painting in which Elisabeth is dressed only in a nightie, her long hair tied in a thick knot in front of her chest. (18)

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The story of the Empress Elisabeth is probably more familiar to Austrian readers. She was brought up in Bavaria, and married the Emperor Franz Josef at sixteen. He had been engaged to her sister. Despite her rather unconventional activities and the dominating behaviour of her mother-in-law, the couple appear to have been happy together until she was assassinated in 1898 by Luigi Lucheni in Switzerland. Known to her intimates as Sisi, (Sissi was the film name for her – see below) her childhood pet name, she frequently travelled on her own, was very active, went on long hikes, was fascinated by circus people, and passionate about Hungary. She was devastated by the suicide of her son Rudolf, at Mayerling.

278 Sissi

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be that you have seen one of the three films in the Sissi series, starring Romy Schneider, made in the 1950s.

The Cake

Food, and Viennese patisserie in particular appear, throughout the novel. The narrator is seduced with them, Ida is greedy for them, and Frau Hauenembs cannot resist buying them. The prize at the Sissi look-alike competition is the winner’s weight in praline. The trio frequently have lavish picnics, carried by Ida, picked at by Frau Hauenembs, futilely resisted by the narrator.

Frau Hauenembs’s protracted beauty rituals mimic the Empress’s. The duck press is for squeezing out juices from the dead bird, to prepare a health drink. Control of eating, body weight and shape are frequent themes of this novella; how much they matter, how much they are under the control of the eater, what they look like in clothes, what they weigh …

The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us. [From the publisher, Meike Ziervogel]

The original German title of the novel is Stierhunger, which translates as bulimia nervosa. The prose is appropriately physical in response to all this bodily fixation. The descriptions of the means by which the narrator attempts to hide her bulimia are especially vivid.

It may be a fairy tale, but the realities of the lives of Elisabeth and her servant, of Frau Hauenembs, Ida and the narrator are far from romantic. No saccharine here, but there is lots of toxic sugar.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, published in 2007 as Stierhunger, and by Peirene Press in 2016. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. 184 pp

Related posts

Books in Translation on this blog looks at the small number of translations, especially by women published in this country.

Tales from the Vienna Streets on this blog in July 2013.

The Beauty Rituals of C19th Empress Elisabeth of Austria on Mimimatthew’s blog. Mind-blowing!

 

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Books in translation

Reading habits in the UK do not embrace diversity. Notoriously we rely on English being a dominant world language, so books in foreign languages are left to students of languages and those strange bilingual people. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Books by women in translation form a disproportionately small percentage of that 4%.

Gender is only one aspect of this general lack of diversity. Most published fiction is written by men and reviewed by men (see the VIDA statistics for the figures for several prestigious review publications here and in the States over some years). Novels by and about people of colour feature less frequently in our reading. Novels that deal with sexuality, transgender, disability, age and any combination of those are rare.

Fiction in Translation

Let’s praise those who are trying to bring more translated fiction to our attention. Peirene Press champions European literature, specifically novellas. I mention Peirene frequently on my blog because their books are beautiful objects as well as good reads, and subscribers are offered salons, supper club, newsletter and blog as well as three books every year. Their founder, Meike Ziervogel is also a published novelist: Magda, Kauthur.

Loving lists, I don’t hesitate to offer you the top 5 from Peirene’s List of 100 Translated Books Everyone Should Read, from their newsletter last year and chosen by readers.

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  1. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons, translated by Daniel Hahn.
  2. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, translated by Robin Buss.
  3. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin.
  4. Marcel Ayme, The Man who Walked through Walls, translated by Sophie Lewis.
  5. Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Sylvia Raphael.

I’ve only read the second and third on this list and 17 of the whole 100. I haven’t even heard of some of the titles. The list reminds me of how much foreign literature I am missing and don’t know about. Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

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Women in Translation

Meytal Radzinski has done a great job reviewing the figures for women in translation. She put up two posts on her blog: Biblibio Life in Letters in January. She looked first at publishers and in part 2 at languages and countries. Whichever way you cut the statistics they tell the same story. Books in translation by women only represent about 30% at best. And the year on year picture does not appear to be improving. People always dispute figures about discrimination and if you want to do this you can look at the figures and her analysis yourself. She is transparent about the figures and how she interrogated them. In a third post she challenges the publishers to publish more women writers in 2016.

So novels in translation in the UK add up to about 4% of the total, and books in translation by women form at most 30% of that 4%. I think that means that novels in translation by women form about 1% of fiction. I notice that only one of Peirene’s top five is by a woman (but three of the translators). In the whole list I could only see 15 by women. Come on readers 15% is too low! The combination of foreign language and female author seems more than many publishers, booksellers and readers can deal with.

235 God dies coverWhat we can do

Read more translated fiction, and more translated fiction by women.

Support the initiative English PEN Writers in Translation.

Seek out more foreign fiction in bookshops and encourage them to stock more.

Look at the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Here’s a list of possible inclusions suggested from the blog Tony’s Reading List.

Take out a subscription to Peirene Press and receive three translated novellas a year.

Bloggers, you can join in #WIT month (Women in Translation) in November, and post recommendations on your blog. Also available is the twitter hashtag #translationThurs.

You don’t have to wait for November to read and post more about books in translation, of course. Join me in April, when I am reviewing An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddie, the next in my older women in fiction series. And I’m extending my tbr list to include another from Peirene readers’ top five.

80 Summer Bk coverOver to you

Any more ways you promote fiction in translation? Any recommendations for readers here and now? What is the best book in translation by a woman that you have read so far in 2016?

 

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The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

August is Women in Translation month. The focus has provided some interesting lists and reviews on blogs and Twitter #WITmonth and it has been good to see the Peirene Press getting so many mentions. Here is my very slightly tweeked review of one of Peirene Press’s many successes. It was first published in January 2013, but still seems to say what I want to say.

The Mussel Feast

I didn’t choose The Mussel Feast. In a manner of speaking it chose me. It came to me as the first book since I subscribed to the Peirene Press.

The Mussel Feast was first published in 1990 in German. Birgit Vanderbeke says, ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’ Birgit Vanderbeke won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the most prestigious German-language literature award. It was well deserved.

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The Story

The book is written as a monologue by the daughter, who is waiting with her mother and brother for the father to return from a business trip, with a promotion in the bag. The story starts as they prepare the mussels for the 6pm arrival of the father, and ends at quarter to ten, when the father has still not arrived and the telephone is ringing. In just over 100 pages the fractured relationships and the abusive behaviour of the father are gradually revealed through the monologue.

The writing

The distinctive tone of the writing is illustrated by the opening lines.

It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes speak of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind. (7)

These lines also form a near perfect opening. Something is going to happen (we never discover exactly what), and they didn’t know it was going to. The reader must ask, who ‘we’ are, and what was the event that the mussel feast did not prefigure, why was the feast abortive, what was so monumental that they have not yet got over it … So many issues and questions, so much drama and change but the tone is even, un-dramatic, determinedly calm, careful, accurate. The writer has been described as playful and arch (on the website of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies).

The style is curiously hypnotic, inviting the reader almost to take it or leave it. The daughter shows us the ways in which the father has controlled each member of the family, where the slightest mishap – like forgetting the salt on holiday – endangered family unity. We come to see why she writes in this way as the girl unpacks the awful dynamics of the family.

Another idiosyncratic aspect of this writing is there no direct speech. Writing classes are taught that dialogue moves the action on, and too much exposition turns the reader off. Teachers who say this should read The Mussel Feast. There are other stylistic challenges for the reader: such as very long paragraphs (one paragraph extends, for example, from p40 – p66) and the characters are never named.

I liked all of this about the book. I thought it was brilliant.

The translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch is excellent, as the extract illustrates.

Related Posts

Word by Word blog Women in Translation #WITmonth introduces some titles and informs us of some figures: 5% of published books in UK are in translation (compared to 50% in France) and of those 30% are by women.

Do you have any recommendations for Women in Translation Month?

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5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.

 

What world books would you recommend?

 

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Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Readers need something different from time to time. It’s the equivalent of a palate cleanser; or a short sleep in the afternoon when you had a really bad night; or a ballad when you have bombarded yourself with 19th century Austro-Germanic music. Sometimes poetry will do, or a short story. And here’s a perfect way to refresh the reading mind: a translated novella. But be warned, this is not fiction lite.

Written originally in Catalan in 1985, Stone in a Landslide was translated by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell and published by Peirene Press in 2010. It’s a gem.

112 Stone coverThe story is told in 126 pages by Conxa, looking back in her old age. At the age of 13 she leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt and uncle in a nearby village on the hillside. It is the 1920s. Conxa lives a patient and level headed life, supported by Tia and Oncle, and later married to Jaume with whom she has three children. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change. Even Barcelona is a distant place, from where cousins visit every summer. In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken away.

This is the quiet story of a woman living on the land, valuing family connections, friends, differences and respect built up by years of honouring and community interdependence. Large events shape life, as do poverty, the seasons, the demands of land and animals. And inevitably the modern world forces its changes and the family can no longer subsist in the village and by the conclusion of the novella Conxa has gone to live in her old age with her son in Barcelona.

The title’s significance becomes apparent in the third section as external events intrude increasingly upon her life. Taken to a prison with her children because of Jaume’s Republican connection, she likens herself to a stone.

They take us to Montsent prison. I didn’t even know where it was. The worst is not knowing anything. Elvira [her daughter] moves around and talks to everyone, even the jailers. She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days … (p89)

A stone is lost among others in a landslide, but the landslide depends on the individual stones. Each stone is affected by those around it; a landslide is dangerous and changes the landscape. The stone is an image that reappears in later pages. For example: moved to a camp the family endure a long period of waiting. She says, ‘The days weighed on my heart like flagstones.’ (p99)

Reflecting on the disappearance of Jaume, she employs another image that stings when you read, and lingers in the memory:

I knew he was dead and I would never again have him at my side because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.’ (p95-6)

The imagery arises from the harsh rural landscape into which she was born, and where she worked and raised her family. You can see from these short extracts that Stone in a Landslide is written in simple, short sentences and in language relevant to the rural community.

There are moments of exquisite pleasure, as when Conxa and her friend Delina go picking mushrooms.

We left at daybreak and at the beginning we were as excited as little girls because finally we had enough time to talk to each other properly. When the going got steep, though, we held our tongues to save our breath.

I liked this outing. I was in the meadows, following the darker grass of the tracks thinking about nothing except finding a big patch of mushrooms and filling my basket. The walk was hard but, after going up so far, it was easy enough to walk down again. From where we were we could see all the villages as if they were close by, with the black slates of the roofs and the occasional plume of smoke revealing signs of life. We stopped at the top to eat, red-faced and with a light wind on our necks, before we started the painstaking search for mushrooms. (p66-7)

But you do not get the feeling that her life has ended as she wanted. The landslide has brought her, as so many others, to the city. In this case to Barcelona. Conxa is estranged from the urban life, emphasised by paragraphs that begin ‘Barcelona is … ‘

Barcelona is having the sky far away and the stars trembling. It is a damp sky and very grey rain.

Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes, hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sounds of the animals at home as you look at dogs chained at dusk.

Barcelona is a small loaf of bread which is finished every day and milk from a bottle, very white, with no cream and a thin taste.

Barcelona is wordless noise and a thick silence full of memories. (p124-5)

Maria Barbal

Maria Barbal

Once again, congratulations to Peirene Press for the innovative approach to publishing and bringing to English readers such a wealth of translated novellas. You will find reviews of The Mussel Feast by Birgit Venderbeke, and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, both published by Peirene Press, on this blog.

Another blog review of Stone in a Landslide, in the context of translations, can be found on Book Snob.

 

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Mind the gap!

Does this happen to you? I finish a novel feeling satisfied. If the novel is good I can enjoy the feeling of a resolution or conclusion. But if I haven’t really enjoyed it then I am pleased to have got to the end. And then I frequently find myself reluctant to start a new book, even one I want to read or must read or that has been in my tbr pile for months. I don’t want to loose the sensation of being in the mode of reader of the previous book. Does that happen to you?

86 Mind the Gap

I have four strategies for dealing with this.

Strategy #1 Short stories

Short stories often work because they pull me in quickly so that my reluctance is swiftly overcome. At the moment I have two volumes that are working in this way for me:

86 sh st

Dear Life by Alice Munro – the queen of short stories.

Grimm Tales for Old and Young by Philip Pullman. These are short, often familiar and quickly pull you into the tale. ‘There was once a fisherman who …’ ‘A beautiful young girl was imprisoned in a tower …’ that kind of thing.

 

Strategy #2 Novellas

I pick up one of Peirene Press’s novellas and know that I will soon move into some very sharp experiences. The quality of the writing is guaranteed, for the Press specialises in translated novellas by European writers of note. Excellent translations too.

86 Portrait

My most recent that I read was Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch).

A pregnant young German woman, (we never know her name) walks through Rome in January 1943. Her journey takes two hours, 114 pages and only one sentence. Everywhere there are signs of war going badly: shortages, threat of bombs, and the presence of the German army. Her husband has been sent to the North African front. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she lives: people are forced into separation from those they love, people are in mortal danger, and living with extreme privation, and her Lutheran beliefs are tested by Catholicism and anti-Semitic ideologies.

And currently in my bag for company on journeys is another novella from Peirene Press, this one French and starting with a bus journey and an atmosphere of dread: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter). Those of us who live in Devon, beyond Dawlish, must be prepared for many long bus and train journeys while they repair the seawall and track, and so journeys, like the reading gaps, need good books.

Strategy #3 Literary Reviews

I subscribe to two journals, both of which alert me to books I do and don’t want to read: London Review of Books and Literary Review. I also always have several back copies of the Guardian Saturday Review waiting to be combed through. After reading a few recommendations I am usually ready to start on my next book.

86 periodicals

Strategy #4 Start a new book anyway!

Sometimes the necessity of getting through a book – for the reading group, for a review, for a library due date – means I must just dive in. Usually that works too.

 

Do you have the gap sensation? What do you do? Any more suggestions?

 

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