Category Archives: translation

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

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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

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Celebrating English PEN at 100

Recently I attended online an award ceremony for the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. She was being honoured at the British Library with the PEN Pinter Award for 2021. In turn she had nominated, as a writer of courage, Kakwenza Rukirabashiya, from Uganda, who read from his account of arrest and torture: Banana Republic: where writing is treasonous

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The event was moving, not only for the celebration of these brave writers facing opposition in their countries, but also because we were reminded that English PEN is 100 years old this year. Few international organisations in defence of human rights have lasted a full century. We should celebrate the work of the organisation, its purposes and those it supports.

A brief history

Founded in 1921 by novelist, poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Gallsworthy as its first president, the organisation boasted from the beginning many well-known writers of the time: May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera BrittainEM Forster, WB Yeats, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It spread quickly to other countries.

In 1940 in wartime it issued it Appeal to the Conscience of the World, a plea for the protection of freedom of expression. The text was written by Storm Jameson and signed, among others, by Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, its Charter was agreed in Copenhagen

Its first principle is as appropriate now as it was more than 70 years ago:

Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

There are currently 145 PEN International centres, in over 100 countries. The current president of English PEN is Phillipe Sands. 

Activities

The phrase Common Currency, from the Charter, has been adopted as the name of a series of events this year to mark the centenary. See the website for details.

The PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded annually since 2009, in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter. The criteria for the award are taken from Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005. It is presented to the artist who casts an

‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

As I said, this year it was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I reviewed her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions earlier this year, and I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, The Book of Not. The third novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

The Hessell-Tiltman Prize is awarded for non-fiction. Among the winners was David Olusoga for Black and British in 2017. I am currently reading this book too.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is awarded annually for autobiography. 

English PEN also have several campaigns and other actions. There is the Writers at Risk programme, and a programme to support translators and translations: PEN Translates. An outcome is The World Bookshelf, a list of more than 100 translated titles. Bringing writing to new languages is an important part of sharing ideas and of free expression. 

Reflections

I notice, as I have included links from the posts on Bookword blog, how many of the early PEN supporters I have read and been impressed by. And how many prize winners I have read over the years.

I also notice how significant women writers have been from the start. Not only was English PEN founded by a woman, now renown more for this action than her writing, but many of the activists and presidents have been women, and this year’s PEN Pinter winner is a woman of colour. 

And since I enjoy the adventurousness of much writing in translation, I look forward to exploring The World Bookshelf. One volume of short stories is already on my tbr pile: a present from my daughter: Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). 

Sadly, I think that English PEN will be needed for the next 100 years, but this year let’s acknowledge and celebrate its achievements over its first hundred. 

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More of the last book I …

I found this meme meme on Bookertalk blog in December 2018 and because I enjoyed it I offered my own version the following month. I altered it slightly from the original (my comments were getting too repetitive), and now here is an updated version.

  1. The last book I gave up on

This was The Story of my Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. I had greatly enjoyed Lost Children Archivewhich I read because it was the Book Group choice for March last year. Although the manner in which The Story of my Teeth was written, almost cooperatively, was interesting, the novel didn’t quite grab me enough to review on this blog. I did finish reading it however.

  1. The last book I reread

That would be Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1906). I had two specific reasons for wanting to reread this children’s classic. You can find out what they were by reading the post “Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

  1. The last book I bought

I’m currently awaiting delivery of the following books:

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Tension by EM Delafield

Look out for comments on these on the blog.

  1. The last book I said I’d read but hadn’t

I don’t do this. What’s the point?

  1. The last book I wrote in the margins of

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which I made a few marks against some paragraphs to consider for quotations in the review on this blog. 

  1. The last book I had signed

I don’t do this either. But people often ask me to sign my books, and I do it, although I don’t know why they want me to.

  1. The last book I gave away

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus 

My local writing group doesn’t charge a subscription, so we raise funds in other ways. One way is a monthly raffle in which people are invited to provide writing-related prizes. As I had two copies of Refugee Tales IV, when it was my turn to find a prize in August I put one copy in the raffle. It was much appreciated. 

You can find a post on this blog about this excellent collection here.

  1. The last book I had to replace

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston. I wanted to read these short stories and I had forgotten that I had a copy on my shelves. I bought another. After that I found the original. This is not an unusual event for me, buying duplicates. I loved this collection and wrote about it on the blog which you can read here

  1. The last book I argued over

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. This was another choice for the book group and they were more enthusiastic than I was. We didn’t really argue, and we all got something out of reading it.

  1. The last book I couldn’t find

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. I remember reading it and I thought I had a copy. But I couldn’t find a it so I acquired a second hand one. I could find it now. A theme is building up here.

That earlier post

The last book I …

Over to you

Do any of my answers resonate with you? Try this for yourself.

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Even more praise for short stories

More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. 

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies of short stories. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! because they listen to what the reading public say they want.)

A selection from Bookword 

In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

And in the next few months I plan to read these: 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Bowen collection

Shirley Hazzard collection

Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume the reader is a novelist, so I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.

Other recommendations 

Some other recommendations (with some links) are:

Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

 

Raymond Carver (Vintage)

Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)

Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)

Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Persephone Book of Short Stories

Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)

When I previously wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following writers:

More Praise for Short Stories appeared in January 2017 on this blog.

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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Books that nearly didn’t make it

Writers’ manuscripts sometimes get lost, destroyed, abandoned or otherwise prevented from being published. Here is a selection of publications that nearly didn’t happen, and one that got away. 

Writers write for others to read, so the risks and efforts involved in getting their words published can be enormous. They have often suffered up to this point for their views and yet they are compelled to find a way get the book into print.

  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta
  • My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin
  • The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt
  • Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya
  • No Friend but the Mountain by Behrouz Boochani

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian émigré, who was a well-established novelist in France before the war. This book was written during the occupation by Germany, in 1940-41. Irene Nemirovsky was arrested in July 1942 and taken to Auschwitz and died almost immediately of typhus. Her two daughters were in hiding for the rest of the war, on the move all the time and hunted by the authorities. 

It was Denise who put it [the manuscript] into a suitcase as she and her sister fled Issy L’Evêque. She had often watched her mother writing – in tiny handwriting to save ink and paper – in a large leatherbound notebook. She took it as a memento of her mother. The suitcase accompanied Denise and Elisabeth from one precarious hiding place to another. After the war, they couldn’t bring themselves to read the notebook – having it was enough.  … Many years passed … (402. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition}

The manuscript of the two novellas in this unfinished suite was unopened until the late 1990s when the author’s daughter, Denise, was about to give the notebook to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, dedicated to documenting memories of the war.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, published in French in 2004 and translated by Sandra Smith for the English version, published in 2006 by Vintage. 403pp

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta followed her husband from Nigeria in 1962 to study in London. It was not a happy marriage. He burned the manuscript of her first book, apparently jealous of the attention she gave it and to hurt the writer. Not surprisingly, she decided to leave him, taking the children. She had to earn her living and continued to gain degrees and to write over the next few years. She rewrote the novel, The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing in 1976. 

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976, there is a Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

My Career goes Bung by Miles Franklin

Miles Franklin was an outspoken Australian novelist, who became notorious on the publication of her first book, My Brilliant Career, in 1901. In it she portrayed a young woman who’s views and actions shocked the Australian public. Miles Franklin was burned by the reception of her first novel and refused to have it reprinted. My Career Goes Bung was written as the second volume of the fictional autobiography. It was completed in 1902, but fearful of its reception it was not published until the 1940s, when attitudes towards women had changed.

In the introductory To all young Australian writers – Greetings, she describes how she put the manuscript in a portmanteau, together with other papers, ‘left with someone in Chicago, USA while I went to the World War, which is now seen to have been merely practice manoeuvres for Global Armageddons’. The trunk was appropriated by someone who needed a travel bag and the papers burned as useless.

I thought My Career Goes Bung had gone with this collection, and had forgotten the copy of it which survived in an old trunk valiantly preserved all the years by my mother. (7)

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt

Charlotte Beradt was a Jewish journalist, raised in Berlin between the wars. She made a collection of dreams of the people, mostly Jewish, who lived under the Nazi regime from 1933. She collected over 300 dreams which she recorded and hid in the bindings of her own library. When even that hiding place was risky, she sent small selections with coded names to her friends abroad. Hitler became Uncle Hans, Goring was Gustav and Goebbels was Gerhardt. 

She escaped Berlin in 1939, to settle eventually in New York. Her book was first published in German in 1966, after she had retrieved the material. It has been translated into English, although it can be hard to find. She organised the 75 dreams in the book into chapters to demonstrate that waking life and dreams are linked, and that the unconscious effects of authoritarianism are noted in the collective unconscious. 

An article in the New Yorker by Mireille Juchau in 2019 describes her achievement. 

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya

Irna Ratushinskaya was a Russian dissident poet, born in 1954, who was sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp in 1983. The punishment was for writing and circulating her poetry. The conditions in prison were very harsh, and to begin with she had no paper. She wrote poems with a matchstick in the soap, and then learned them by heart. Over 250 poems were composed and eventually written in this way.

She was released from prison as Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik to meet Reagan in 1986 as gesture of goodwill. She died in 2017. This is her prison memoir.

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irna Ratushinskaya, published by Vintage in 1989.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This powerful and horrifying book was written in Parsi while the Iranian Kurdish poet was imprisoned on Manus Island. The island was owned by Papua New Guinea, rented by the Australian government to house refugees seeking asylum in Australia. The conditions were awful and many preferred refoulement (return to their country of origin) to living in the camps. The prison camp was eventually closed because it violated human rights.

This book recounts the voyages from Indonesia taken by Behrouz Boochani as he sought to escape from Iran. It continues with an account of his time in the jail, and an analysis of how the men were imprisoned and oppressed by what he calls a Kyriarchal system. This means several intersecting forms of oppression are made to work systematically and together to keep the prisoners down. These included the never-ending queues for food, toilets, telephones and the presence of the guards.  

The text was sent out of the prison by Facebook and then What’s App, to his translator, Omid Tofighian. 

Behrouz Boochani was held on Manus Island from 2013 – 2017. He was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020. 

The book is a powerful argument against detaining refugees, and of what has been called ‘off-shoring’, detaining asylum applicants away from the mainland. It is also a compelling description of a prison system, one that persistently dehumanises people. Remember, they were not criminals. 

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, published by Picador in 2018. 398pp. Translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian

And one that got away …

In 1848 the publisher of Wuthering Heights wrote to Ellis Bell (aka Emily Brontë) in anticipation of a second novel, which he was eager for the author to complete. No such manuscript has been found. Emily died later that year, her only known novel had been published the previous year.

It has been suggested that Charlotte burned the manuscript after her sister’s death, to save her reputation from another sensational novel. Whatever happened that novel is lost to us.

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The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

You have to admit that it’s an intriguing title. Do you know anything about Tartar cuisine? Whether the dishes are hot or not? Where can you find Tartar cuisine? One interpretation of ‘hottest dishes’ might be the sexist interpretation of dish as woman, and so the hottest dishes are Rosa, her daughter Sulfia and granddaughter Aminat. Or it might be literal, and refer to the research by Dieter into the cuisine – research that lands him in hospital under the care of Russian nurse Sulfia. And it emerges that Rosa is not familiar with Tartar cuisine, at least not as a cook. But the dishes are familiar to her palette.

If this all sounds a bit muddled, and rather wild, just join in and follow the story told by Rosa of how she came to the west.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

I read My Grandmother’s Braid last February and so had some familiarity with the flamboyant writing of Alina Bronsky. These grandmothers are not to be messed with. They are selfish, liars, schemers with a very high opinion of themselves. And they love their granddaughters with a fierceness that overcomes most obstacles.

This novel is narrated by the main character, and might not appeal to those who want to have sympathy with the protagonists of the novels they read. She is also an unreliable, even dishonest narrator. But she has wit and nerve and plenty of energy. Here is the opening paragraph:

The knitting needle
As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap. (15)

Rosa is dismayed that her daughter, so different in character from her, is pregnant. She is unable to be clear about who the father is, or indeed whether there was a father at all. Rosa describes her pregnant daughter in this ungenerous way:

This daughter I did have was deformed and bore no resemblance to her mother. She was short – she only came up to my shoulders. She had no figure whatsoever. She had small eyes and a crooked mouth. And, as I said, she was stupid. She was already seventeen years old, too, so there was little chance she would get any smarter. (13-4)

The baby is born, despite Rosa’s attempts to abort it, and as soon as she is born Rosa decides that she is the best person to bring the girl up. Now she focuses on getting Sulfia out of the way. She is instrumental in getting Sulfia married on three occasions. Sulfia meets men in dependent positions because she works as a nurse in a clinic. 

It is in the clinic that Sulfia meets Dieter, a German cookery writer, who shows no interest in Sulfia until he meets Aminat, now a sulky adolescent. Rosa schemes to get the three of them invited to Germany, and there she manages to get Sulfia married to Dieter. Her daughter returns to Russia to care for her father, but Aminat and Rosa stay on, Rosa picking up jobs and connections that will be resources for the next stage in her life.

This not a rollicking comedy of outlandish behaviour, although there are many elements of this. There is some real pathos. Sulfia is very badly treated by her mother, who always has justifications for her actions, which she claims is for the interests of others. The saddest episode is when Sulfia dies, and everyone can see how she has been browbeaten. 

The novel follows Rosa’s attempts to gain a better life for herself and for those she cares about. The list of those she cares about varies considerably, usually involving her granddaughter, and sometimes her own daughter. To achieve what she wants Rosa lies, schemes, bribes, drills and dominates those in her orbit. 

She is selfish, opinionated, prejudiced, and self-deluding. At first she seems over written and it is quite shocking to see how everything is about Rosa, even her 17 year-old daughter’s unplanned pregnancy. I think that the author is describing aspects of everybody’s character, exaggerating them for effect and reminding the reader that we are all, to some degree, self-obsessed, opinionated and self-deluding.

It’s an unsettling story, for Rosa frequently exceeds the bounds of decency or morality in pursuit of her goals. The ending is somewhat obscure and ambiguous. I enjoyed reading it for its lack of English subtlety and charm. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, first published in 2010 and in English by Europa Editions, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. 263pp

It is my contribution to Women in Translation Month 2021.

Related posts

My Grandmother’s Braid reviewed on Bookword blog in February 2021

Heavenali reported on her blog on her enjoyment of this book in February, its outrageous narrator and its ‘unique and quirky story-telling’.

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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