Monthly Archives: December 2021

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp

The blurb on the back cover describes the novella in this way. A woman approaching the ‘invisible years’ of middle age abandons her failing writing career to retrain as a chiropodist in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn, once the GDR’s largest prefabricated housing estate. From the clinic on the ground floor, she observes her clients and co-workers, and hears their stories. The charms of this short book are only hinted at by this description.

Marzahn, Mon Amour

The title of this collection is an homage to the French New Wave film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The 1959 film was directed by Alain Renais and the screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  It was innovative in its presentation of a nonlinear montage of miniature stories and other memorabilia. Like the film, Katja Oskamp provides us with many different sketches, mostly descriptions of clients and colleagues, but also of her tram journey to work and the local cemetery, to make a statement about the GDR suburb and its community. The destructive force here is less defined than the Atom Bomb which was used to flatten Hiroshima in August 1946. Nevertheless, the reunification of Germany in 1990 did not work out well for the people of Marzahn even if a sense of community prevails.

The vignettes of the clients form most of the chapters, and every vignette is seen from the perspective of the characters’ feet. The writer is a chiropodist who has great tenderness for the feet, and for the lives that have been lived with them. For the most part, her clients are old, many of them long-term residents of Marzahn.

Katja Oskamp has great patience and respect for her clients and reads how they live from the state of their feet. 

When I carefully rub Frau Bronkat’s feet with Voltarol, she appreciates the easing of her pain, although it never completely disappears. She says the hideous shoes she wore as a child are only half the root of her ailments. The other half was inherited. All the women in her family have loose joints, stretched ligaments or weak tendons. One cousin developed a bunion by the time she was eleven. ‘Our wretched bones are good for nothing,’ she told me. I have a vision of an entire squad of Bronkat nurses, all with white nurse’s hats and grey aprons, black sandals peeking out from under the grey fabric of their dresses, revealing their bare feet with bunions like overripe tubers, glowing red. (123)

The Fats Waller song Your Feet’s Too Big was frequently in my head when I read this. Especially the line:

Oh, your pedal extremities are colossal

And then we met Herr Huth, who has Alzheimer’s and accompanies his wife to the clinic.

Last week, Herr Huth had the first pedicure of his life. He sat on the chiropody chair and said, as I was washing his feet, ‘I’ve got size eleven feet. I have big shoes to fill.’ Frau Huth and I giggled, and then Frau Huth, who was sitting on the chair in the window, turned and looked out. I trimmed Herr Huth’s toenails, cleaned his nail folds, smoothed the edges of his nails with the drill and filed his heels. He slept. He looked pale and peaceful. (132)

What is revealed in this series of vignettes is the observational skill of the writer. She notices the behaviour of the regular clients as a contrast to the newbies’. She is tolerant of repetitive conversation, and of demanding customers. She obviously loves feet. And she writes about her clients with charm and respect. She provides a quiet affirmation of the value of each person, even the very old and sick, and her workmates.

The biographical details provided reveal that these vignettes come from Katja Oskamp’s experience, for she has been a chiropodist in Marzahn. 

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp, first published in 2019. The English translation from German by Jo Heinrich, published by Peirene Press in 2022. 141pp You can find details of Peirene subscriptions here

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season has been sitting in the pile of books I’m planning to read for some time. It has sat there in its handsome Fitzcarraldo Editions blue jacket for some time having come to my attention earlier this year. And now it has come to the top of the pile, and I am glad to have read it and glad too that the reading is over, because it is quite a tough book. But also very exhilarating, because of the headlong, hurtling style of the writing. 

Fernanda Melchor is a Mexican writer, and this is her second novel and her first book available in English translation. The novel won an English PEN Award, and it is an important and outstanding book. It was translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Hurricane Season

The novel is set among the inhabitants of the small Mexican village of La Matosa. The village is impoverished despite the highway than runs nearby, carrying the huge trucks of the oil industry. 

In the opening chapter the body of a witch is found by children in an irrigation channel near the village. The crime was committed by two young men, both of whom are losers. Neither the question of who did it or why are central to the meaning of this novel. The crime is almost incidental in the lives of several people. We enter into five lives in turn, having learned something of the background of the witch herself, an isolate living in a house outside the village, providing cures and potions for the sick and afflicted, and wild parties for the young men. 

In turn we read of the inner life, inner voice of five characters who are associated with the death of the witch. Yesenia had grown up with her stepbrother, Luismi, but hates him and the special attention their grandmother gave him. She observes him loading the body into the van and shops him to the police. 

Luismi is a pathetic and hopeless young man who has rejected his grandmother and moved in with his mother and her husband. He has not got much going for him. He has no employment but believes that he will be offered a lucrative job in the refining business, promised by ‘a friend’. It is clear that this potential job will never materialize and Luismi is drifting until he meets Norma. 

Munra, is his the stepfather who drives a van, involved in the crime. Munra used to be a fit and good-looking man but was hit by a truck in an accident and is now unable to work. He lives off his wife and what he earns from driving his van. He has no future either. 

Norma is 13 and running away from her impoverished home. She has been taking care of the children her mother has by different fathers. She is much neglected and dismissed by her mother. Her stepfather, Pepe, grooms her and eventually makes her pregnant. She runs away, as far as the town near La Matosa, where Luismi finds her in the park. It is as far as her money will take her. Luismi and brings her to live with him in his shack, unaware of her pregnancy. Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the witch for an abortion. She bleeds so badly she goes to hospital where she refuses to accuse anyone of making her pregnant and so is detained.

Brando is the most deadbeat and hapless of all these characters. He appears to have no redeeming features, no moral compass at all, despite a mother heavily influenced by the church. He is high most of the time and earns money as a male prostitute. His aim is to escape La Matosa and plans to steal the witch’s money in order to do this. He is ready to kill his accomplices too, but the police catch up with him before he can do this.

Everyone seems to believe the witch has heaps of money hidden in her house. The truth is much more macabre.

 

Fernanda Melchor

The writing of Hurricane Season

This is a bleak novel for it is clear that the lives of these people are dominated by drugs and poverty. Sex work is the major employment for women and boys. Violence is endemic. Parents hit their children, boys hit each other, women are hit by everyone.

The writing that conveys this unstable environment is breakneck, headlong. The chapters have no paragraph divisions. Some are more than 50 pages long, requiring the reader to continue without a break. 

The language is coarse, colloquial, full of invective, curses and colourful insults. Since we are largely within the heads of each of the main characters, we are unable to escape the contempt in which people hold each other, their fury at broken hopes, their grinding misery. It is vivid and very raw. The translator Sophie Hughes is to be congratulated for achieving this effect in English without it appearing stilted or contrived. Here’s an example.

It made Yesenia’s blood boil whenever she got to thinking about it, with an anger that made her guts throb, every time she thought about that ungrateful little prick and what a fool Grandma had been to tell Uncle Murilio she’d bring him up, when she knew full well that the slag he was seeing was a professional whore who’d open her legs for anyone with a deep enough pocket. (38)

And another example:

And the Witch, who throughout the whole exchange just carried on tinkering about in that noxious kitchen with her back to them, turned and stared at Norma, her eyes sparkling behind her veil, and after a long silence she said that before doing anything she had to examine Norma, to see how far gone she was; and right there on the kitchen table they laid her on her back and hitched up her dress and the Witch pressed her hands all over Norma’s stomach, roughly, almost angrily, perhaps enviously and after a few minutes of groping around the Witch told them it was going to be tricky, that she was already really far gone … (150)

That second extract is all one sentence which doesn’t finish for another 25 lines. 

The story is not told in a linear way, but rather through the involvement and back stories of those five characters. 

And in this way the author lays bare the wretchedness of this element of Mexican society, where drugs are supreme, and the currency is sex. Violence is everywhere, especially towards the weaker people, the women and girls. 

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor first published in 2017. The English edition was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2021. 226pp

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes 

Winner of English PEN Award, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020

Related Posts

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement 

Celebrating English PEN at 100

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Celebrating six books I read in 2021

You don’t need reminding that 2021 was not a great year, but ever the Pollyanna I can pick out many great books that I read in the last 12 months. I offer you five posts about them, with a bonus sixth. When choosing these I noticed a bit of a historical theme. Enjoy!

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes

This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946, in southern England. The ‘long nightmare’ of the Second World War is over but everything is changed. This had direct relevance when I read and blogged about it in July; we were seeing the relaxation of restrictions and worry about the Covid pandemic. 

Laura and her family have been through separation, and now must manage the social and economic changes brought by the war to their world. During a summer’s afternoon she climbs up Barrow Down and finds hope and peace in the landscape below.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers. 

I enjoyed reading her two novels. Clash (1932) is set during the General Strike of 1926; it captures the heady excitement and drama of political activism.

The Division Bell Mystery is a whodunnit set in the Palace of Westminster, written while she was temporarily out of parliament.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

You can find the post about Ellen Wilkinson’s novels here.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I loved reading this book for all the reasons that fiction is so powerful: it takes you to new places and shows you the world in a new light. I have been to Ethiopia, where this novel is set. The history of the war against the invading Italians is not fiction. But Maaza Mengiste has fictionalised the events, revealing some of the brutality of the failed Italian colonial exercise.

It’s vivid in its retelling of the unequal struggle. The main character is Hirut, an ignorant young girl at the start of the novel, but a proud bodyguard of the Shadow King during the struggle. And this novel is very poignant given the troubles that erupted in Tigray province in November 2020 and have worsened this year.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp. Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I had read this novel before, but in the light of Black Lives Matter and all that has been happening recently in the United States relevant to racism, and in the UK, it seemed to be the right time to reread it. I was struck by the strength of this book in demonstrating the reverberations of evil that spread out from the enslavement of Africans and the trading of enslaved people across the Atlantic. Toni Morrison describes the book as inviting the reader ‘to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts’. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

As the title suggests, this is the 4th book in a series. I have read and reviewed them all. I have walked with Refugee Tales. I found myself reading this collection with a mounting sense of outrage. ‘How can we still be here, after 70 years?’ I asked on Bookword Blog. In particular how can we still be detaining people seeking refuge in our country, and detaining them indefinitely. I remain outraged. The stories told in Refugee Tales are not easy and remind us of the human tragedies that are produced by world events.

I was grateful to the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group Autumn newsletter for reprinting my post. Please do not be silent on this issue.

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp

More Gallimaufry by the Totnes Library Writers Group

This is the bonus book I mentioned at the top of this piece. For me, much of 2021 has been spent in co-editing a collection of writing by my local writing group. We emerged from lockdowns with a determination to produce our second collection of writing. We have done it and the book is an object of pride, especially to the 21 contributors. I wrote about editing it in the post called More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

It would take a great deal to limit my reading, whatever the pandemic lands us with. I am looking forward to more in 2022: more Elizabeth Strout, more women in translation, more older women, and more set in the 1940s. I might even get to more writing next year.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reading, Travelling with books, Women of Colour, Writing and Walking

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

There is no sudden change when a woman becomes old, in my experience. What I see is that women from their youth spend their days doing things: reading, pursuing interests, gardening, maintaining relationships, worrying about their bodies, money, relationships and their children. And as they get older they continue to be absorbed by these things. And one day they realise that they are ageing, and another day they come to see that they are old. And they continue to read, pursue interests, work in the garden, maintain relationships, worry about their bodies, money, relationships and their children.

There is a quartet of older women – the main characters – in The Weekend. Charlotte Wood has not so much written about ageing as about a group of women who have been friends for decades and are now in their 70s.

This is the 56th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Weekend

Four Australian women have been friends for decades, and now they are in their 70s. One of them, Sylvie, has died and the others have agreed to clear her beach house before it is sold. It is about a year since she died. The weekend they choose to do this is Christmas, and it’s very hot.

Sylvie owned the house and is still present through her possessions, and the memories that the women have of her, sparked by the items in her house. They have an expectation that they will be grieving for their friend individually and as a group during the weekend. Wendy finds some postcards that Sylvie has kept, sent by friends as they travelled the world, including one from her in Paris. She is amazed to find that she knows very few of the people who sent the cards. I have had this experience at a funeral of finding that my knowledge of my friend was partial. There were parts of his life of which I knew nothing, despite thinking of him as a close friend. 

Dominating the work of clearing Sylvie’s house is Jude, a woman of fine taste and a very controlling manner. She can communicate contempt in a few words about, say, stale bread. She has been living with a secret for forty years – she is the kept woman of a very rich man. The group know this, but they have never met him. Jude’s non-verbal communication is one of the most creative aspects of Charlotte Wood’s writing: she bangs plates and pots, raises an eyebrow, glares, sighs, rolling of eyes and none of it is in pleasure.

Wendy is an intellectual, who has lost control of her body. She owns the dog, Finn, who intrudes upon every scene with his tremors and incontinence, his smell and his anxiety. She is too fond of Finn to contemplate putting him down. This attitude mirrors, perhaps, a dominant and contradictory view of the very old: with love but frustration at a life lived beyond independence.

Adele is an actress, now permanently resting, but with high hopes of a comeback and maintaining a punishing regime to keep her body and good looks. She meets a rival actress who has been getting the parts that she wished for, and the battle between these women is a feature of the central section of the book. The struggle between Sonia and Adele for the attention of the younger man, a theatre producer provides some comedy, at the expense of all of them.

These women are not so much battling old age as dealing with the issues with which they are presented at this moment in their lives. Their lovers, and children, their financial situation, their preoccupations and their antagonisms have been arising throughout their lives. They have not always supported each other and have exacerbated the each other’s difficulties at times. 

As the three women are reminded of Sylvie, and her foibles and strengths, they see the other two friends against the backdrop of her life and death and begin to wonder why they are still friends, or indeed ever were friends.

Over the weekend each of the three women meets a crisis, and after some very difficult moments, they also find strength in each other. But it is painful, not just because they are ageing, but also because life and friendships are hard. 

I thought this was an excellent novel. It depicts women in their 70s but is not about living in fear of death, despite the death of one of them; nor is it about nostalgia and memories and trying to regain a vanishing past; nor are they amusingly handicapped by forgetfulness; nor are they querulous and demanding; nor do they have magical powers of insight bestowed by advancing years. Their lives are not so different from my friends in their 70s, or indeed my own.

Adele reflects the continuity of life that is a feature of this novel: 

Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.

Charlotte Wood

This award-winning writer lives in Sidney and is in her 50s. In 2013 she was appointed as the inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sidney in the Charles Perkins Centre, a research facility that brings science and art together, for example, to look at the complexity of old age. The Weekend is her sixth novel and is very successful, being awarded prizes and picked as Book of the Year by many publications.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, published in 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 258pp

Related posts

The Boookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

Simon Lavery prompted me to get a copy of this novel with his review on his blog: Tredynas Days, last December. You can see his review here.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.

All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.

The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.

We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin. 

So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues. 

I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.

Who is Elena Ferrante?

And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer. 

I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Travel with Books, Women in Translation