Category Archives: translation

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Last month, February, I wrote a themed post about outsiders in fiction (here is the link). I listed some books about outsiders and invited readers to make other suggestions, which they did. Many thanks. One comment in particular drew my attention – the suggestion that all books about women are books about outsiders (Thanks @Kaggsy59). This observation is at the heart of reading for so many women, especially those of us who were active in the Second Wave of feminism. Reading was often a political act.

The additional suggestions included books by Anita Brookner, Veronique Olmi, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson among others. A suggestion on twitter also drew my attention as I was intending to get a copy of this novel and read it soon based on reviews I had read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I found it in WH Smith on Paddington Station, as a ‘staff pick’ which seems fitting.

Convenience Store Woman

The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is 34, a virgin and she has worked part-time for 18 years in the same convenience store. Like many young people in Japan she began this work while at University, continued it after she graduated, and unlike her contemporaries she has never left. It is soon clear that she is on some kind of spectrum, having few emotions and only able to pass in limited social settings by using some interesting strategies: excuses, white lies and by copying behaviour, speech patterns and clothing. But it is also clear that she understands the rituals and routines of the store, the service it provides in the neighbourhood and that this deep understanding provides meaning to her outsider life. This is not considered acceptable by her friends and family.

Into her life, at the store, comes Shiraha. He too is an outsider, but he is lazy, prepared to sponge off people, and he blames everyone else for his lack of attractiveness. He is not a sympathetic character as he often expresses ill-thought out reductionist cave man theories. For a while he convinces Keiko that if she takes him in (he owes money on his rent) and feeds him, this will get people off her back. She is indeed troubled by people who try to make her behave more like other women. At first her friends are delighted when she takes Shiraha in, but eventually even Keiko sees that this man is sleazy. She rejects him and reasserts her right to work in a convenience store. She wants to return to the simple demands the work makes on her and to a life which is familiar.

Reading this novel

I often find that reading fiction in translation shows me the world in a very different way. It is true with this book too. There is an element of strangeness about it, but it is also an appeal to allow people to determine their own paths in life. It was an easy read even a bit of a page turner. Simply written, in a deadpan style as a first person narrative, this quirky narration exactly matches Keiko’s character. It is also very funny in places.

At one level this short novel is a critique of the social pressure to conform in modern Japan. Her friends and family seem to believe that Keiko should be made to follow the normal patterns for a young woman.  

I am not quite sure why Granta decided to issue this paperback in several different colours with the purchaser receiving any one of them randomly. Mine is blue. It seems like a marketing gimmick, but I can’t see how it links to the novel’s content.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) published by Granta. 163pp

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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Outsiders in Fiction

My recent reading has included several novels that show us the world of the isolate, the outsider. Not just young women trying to make their way in the teeth of family and social opposition, but people who just are not fitting in.

I guess they appeal to readers, because reading is so often an isolated activity, and writers too for the same reason. But more than that. Fiction about outsiders makes us see the world we inhabit from the outside. It is not always a comforting vision.

Here are five works of fiction that do this rather well:

  1. Free Day by Ines Cagnati 
  2. Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
  3. Nagasaki by Eric Faye
  4. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
  5. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I expect you can think of books to add to this list.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati 

Translated from the French by Liesl Schilling, who also writes the Introduction.

The outsider in this novella is a double outsider: her family are Italian immigrants in France, and she has a life apart from her family. Galla is 14 years old, living in rural France in the 1950s. She attends the Catholic girls’ school but at great cost. Neither of her parents wanted her to go – she is a boarder – because she is useful on the farm. At school the girls and the teachers look down on her for her poverty, except Fanny, who may be imaginary.

The novella follows Galla on a trip home on an unanticipated day off. She rides the 20 or so miles on an old unreliable bike. It is winter and she arrives as night falls. The farmhouse is locked and she is unable to attract the attention of her mother to let her in. She spends the night with the dog Daisy and her puppy. In the morning she returns to school, through the frost, falling from time to time on black ice. Her reception when she arrives at school is surprisingly warm, and she falls into bed. In the morning it becomes apparent that Galla must return to the farm. We know that she will have to take on the burdens of her mother.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati, first published as Le Jour de congé in 1973. English version issued by nyrb in 2019. 143pp

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

 

Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden

This novella is about an old man who lives alone in the Alps, beginning to lose his memory, but staunchly a loner. He is befriended by a dog, but rejects the overtures of the local ranger. During the winter the man and dog endure hardship as they live out the cold and empty months, until they find a foot in the snow. Fearing it is the ranger the man seeks to hide it. It is bleak, funny and tragic.

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, first published in 2015 and the English version by Peirene in 2019. 174 pp

Nagasaki byEric Faye (2012)

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce.

This novella features two outsiders. Based on a real event, this is the story of a woman who hides in a solitary man’s house in Nagasaki in Japan. He finds her after several months, because she had been stealing from his fridge. The story is about the man’s isolation and his shock at being invaded in his home. The women tells her story in a letter of apology. Another bleak novella. 

Nagasaki by Eric Faye, first published in 2012, and the English version by Gallic in 2014. 109pp

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The original Harriet

Another story of isolation based on the historical events of the Penge murder in 1877. The story follows the fortunes of those involved with Harriet, simple but well-off, who is married for her money and then four adults are involved in starving her to death. The motivation of the quartet is well described, believable that they more or less fell into it, each from their own twisted selfishness. That people are capable of such cruelty, especially to one ‘with learning difficulties’ – as we would say – is shocking.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1934. It was re-issued by Persephone Books in 2012. 320pp

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

This is a dark tale, well-told. Eileen is the name of the narrator, who is in her early 20s living in Xville, in 1964. Her mother has died, her father is a drunk. Eileen works in a lowly admin job in the local prison for young offenders, and hates her life, herself, her father, her surroundings and her prospects. Eileen is aware that she lives in a bubble and that far from being despised by everyone, she is not noticed.

She becomes involved with sophisticated Rebecca who gets a job at the prison and then with the case of a boy who has killed his father. The two women decide to take action against his mother who they believe is also complicit. Eileen finally escapes Xville but one feels that in the immediate future her actions are not likely to be any better judged.

It is surprising and revulsion-inducing throughout, but in the end its hard to know who is the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp For a full review see my post from Dec 2016

And of course, the archetypal outsider is by the French writer, Albert Camus: L’Etranger. Published in 1942, a French Algerian young man shoots another man on the beach, and appears indifferent to the consequences of the murder.

Over to youCan you add to the list of outsiders in fiction with any recommended reads?

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Poems at War

When I began reading French literature I came across Paul Verlaine. Alphonse de Lamartine too became a favourite. I would take especial pleasure in intoning the line from Villon: Ou sont les neiges d’antan. I was in my late teens and easily moved by the dramatic declarations of doomed love. I had no idea that poetry had been used in the war until I returned to studying French after my retirement. 

The D Day Landings

Slapton Memorial

The organisation of the D Day Landings (Operation Overlord) was an amazing achievement. The engineering solutions to the problems presented by moving the combined armed forces from several nations across the sea were stunning. All this had to be coordinated with the resistance fighters in France. The deceptions to keep secret the destination of the invasion were intricate and labyrinthine. And the preparations, especially along the south coast and in the South West, were enormous. Some of these can still be seen. No one can walk along Slapton Sands without becoming aware of its role in preparing and rehearsing the troops. One poem played a small but significant part in all of this.

Chanson D’Automne by Paul Verlaine

On the 1st June 1944 soon at 6.30 in the morning, Radio Londres transmitted the first three lines of a poem by Paul Verlaine. 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne

It means, roughly, the long sobs of the violins of autumn. It was a coded message. It was heard by many, and you can still hear it here . The sonorous vowels, sound portentous. The message was a warning to one branch of the French resistance fighters. It indicated that within the next two weeks Operation Overlord would be launched, the long-awaited invasion of France by the Allies. It was an instruction to stand by for the next three lines which would signal that they should begin sabotage activities on the railways in France. These were designed to disrupt German transport routes.

Commemorative plaque of Radio Londres in the cemetery of Asnelles, Calvados by Wayne77 via Wikicommons

The second three lines of Verlaine’s poem were broadcast in the same way four days later on 5th June. 

Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Arthur Symonds translates this as My heart is drowned/In the slow sound/Languorous and long.

This second message indicated to the French resistance that the invasion would begin within 48 hours and that they were to initiate sabotage activities on the railways immediately. The parachute landings began just hours after the message was sent out.

The broadcasts were intercepted by German forces. On hearing the three lines in the second of the messages the German Security Service reported to the German High Command, and the army was alerted that an invasion might begin within 48 hours. There had been many false alarms so the Seventh Army took no action. They were responsible for the area in Normandy where the landings were to be made.

The D Day landings began on 6th June. The German effort to respond to the invasion by redirecting troops was severely hampered by the damage from sabotage of the resistance and allied bombing to the French railway lines. 

Paul Verlaine

CHANSON D’AUTOMNE

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure.

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Paul Verlaine (1866)

Poem Codes

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in its communications with operatives in France originally used well-established poems, but gradually they began making up rhymes which would be less easy to decipher. Some of these were rude and sexual. The most famous, which is neither rude nor sexual but moving, was probably written by Leo Marks, the codes officer, and begins

The life that I have 
Is all that I have 
And the life that I have 
Is yours

I sometimes think that literature should not serve armed conflict. It offends my pacifist instincts. But I do find myself moved by the story of Verlaine’s poem.

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The Years by Annie Ernaux

This is such an interesting book. It caught my eye because it won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation this year. I had been hearing and reading about it on twitter and elsewhere. It seemed unusual that this book was gaining popularity and respect but was not a novel. That doesn’t happen very often. Or is it fiction? Is it that strange genre called auto fiction? 

It’s a kind of memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It’s a kind of collective memoir and it was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

The Years

There is a strong thread that follows the chronology of the years, related in the voice of the ‘choral we’. Conversation at family meals, friendships, political involvement, films, books, significant political events, world events and descriptions of photographs – these mark out the passing of time.

The memoir, then, is not of an individual’s life, the events and thoughts of Annie Ernaux from 1940 until 2006. Rather it is a collective memoir of the things we talked about, were involved in, the trends we were caught up in and the receding importance of the war that had absorbed our parents. It becomes a sociological text, but to describe it that way is to omit its literary qualities. For example:

For girls, shame lay in wait at every turn. Excesses in clothing and make-up were always monitored: too short, too long, too low-cut, too flashy etc. The height of their heels, whom they saw, what time they went out and came in, the crotch of their underwear, month after month, were subject to all-pervasive surveillance by society. (71-2)

Reading The Years

I found reading this book quite disorienting. To start with she had insights into stuff that I thought was particularly mine: books, attitudes, relationships and ambitions. She noticed things that I thought other people had not picked up on.

She noted major shifts in attitudes and political trends which I had thought were unique to me, but it turns out were widely shared. Furthermore her analysis was good and added to my understanding of my own passage through the same years.

I found that much of what she was reporting had a French and perhaps even European dimension, but yet applied to my life too. Her experience of Paris in 1968 was more acute (I was safely in the university rebellion at Warwick). In the UK active women could hardly avoid the Greenham Common protests (1981 – 2000) and their significance. But mostly the engagements were broadly similar, despite country and despite a decade’s difference in age.

It was an unsettling experience to read The Years. It was a little like those endless, cyclical debates of adolescence about free will and determinism. What is my life, like hers, like all who are included in the collective voice, what is our life but something to live through in a crowd of other people?

And in the end my individuality was lost. I was not surprised to read these comments by Annie Ernaux in a Guardian interview in April 2019:

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. In the autobiographical tradition we speak about ourselves and the events are the background. I have reversed this. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

But she is also provocative when she proposes the idea that all this will change as the generations replace us and ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

The writing of The Years

Annie Ernaux has said that the main character of The Years is time itself, as indicated by the title. 

There is chronology in the passage of the reader and author through the years since 1940. The war is left behind, we read through the climax of the 1968 uprisings and the comfortable years that follow. In passing she remarks that they had no fear of the future in 1968, but now they fear it, despite a short resurgence of optimism with Mitterand in 1981.

We see all this through non-judgmental descriptions of family meals, films, books, homes, work, political changes, Algeria, the Gulf War and so on. I could read my own history as part of a whole, the well-off left-wing, public sector workers sharing so much of this with France.

Descriptions of photos appear periodically in the text, and they mark the passing of time. They are all, it is implied, of the author as she grows from infancy, through childhood to adulthood. Occasionally her own story intrudes, and both serve to provide some individuality to a text mostly told by the choral ‘we’.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 and brought up in Normandy in a working class family. She became a school teacher, her subject was literature until she retired in 2000. She was able to find time to write The Years after she retired, although this work had been in her mind for much longer. She already had several novels published, all apparently based on the same close observation of real things and events.

The Guardian describes her as France’s great truth teller. The book has received many awards, including the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2019, and the Francois Mauriac Prize from the French Académie and Marguerite Duras Prize for her life’s work. 

The Lonesome Reader blog reviewed The Years after it was placed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize International. 

The Years by Annie Ernaux, first published in 2008. I read the English version published by Fitzcarraldo in 2019. Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer 227pp

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L’orangeraie (The Orange Grove) by Larry Tremblay

I am trying a kind of double review here. I have recently joined a French book club to accelerate my French learning. Our second book is L’orangeraie by Larry Tremblay. I had already read this short novel in English, The Orange Grove in the Peirene edition. 

Two things struck me as I read the French version: the simplicity of the language, with few adjectives. The main characters in the first part are twins of 9 years old. They live simply in the desert, and the language reflects their lives.

The second observation was the very visual aspects of the novel: the orange grove in the desert; the kite dancing free in the mountain wind, the dust from the jeep that brings Soulayed to the family, with his machine gun, loquacity and menace. Larry Tremblay is a theatre director as well as an author and he works in Canada. 

L’orangeraie / The Orange Grove

This novella begins in the parched desert landscape of an unnamed country in the shadow of mountains. A family makes a living from the orange grove, despite 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.

The novel is concerned with the choices that war, hate, revenge require of ordinary people. And with the destruction to human bonds brought by action in pursuit of these. Soulayed arrives to instruct Zahed to choose one of his twin sons to revenge the deaths of his parents with a suicide mission. 

The father chooses Amed, not wishing to send his other, sick son to an early death. Perhaps the choice of his son with a terminal illness would have been a lesser sacrifice. His wife Tamara does not agree and persuades Amed to swap with Aziz.

The reader is confronted by many questions. How can parents choose between the deaths of their children? How can the death of either twin make up for the bombing of their grandparents? How can the seducer, Soulayed, persuade Zahed and the twins that the suicide mission is the right response? What will be achieved by more killing?

In the second section action has suddenly switched to Canada where the grownup Aziz (formerly Amed) is studying acting. The director Michael tries to find the right way to end a play about war. He struggling to find the ending that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Amed/Aziz’s experiences in particular. 

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)

Michael is asking the questions that those of us who live far from conflict must consider. He wants Amed/Aziz to play the part of a child who must justify a soldier’s decision to shoot him or not. The young man comes to his own decision about the ending, addressing the audience directly. 

‘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)

L’orangeraie by Larry Tremblay (2013) La Table Ronde. 143 pp

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2015) Peirene Press. 138pp. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman 

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