Category Archives: Women in Translation

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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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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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Today’s post, featuring a fictional older woman, is from northern Europe. The novel was written in Finnish and is set in Estonia. Estonia has been occupied and claimed for centuries by its neighbours, even since the end of the First World War, and with considerable bloodshed and hardship. The lives of the two women in the novel, one older another two generations younger, are shaped by these events, and they have received abuse about their loyalties and been exploited for them. The fractured history of the country has broken families and friendships and most people have left the countryside. The novel is set in the village of Läänemaa and in 1992 it is dying.

This is the 53rd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. It was recommended by a reader of my guest posts on the Global Literature in Libraries blog in August 2019. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Purge

We meet Aliide Truu as an old woman, apparently abandoned in her family home in the Estonian forest at the end of the 20th Century. Estonia is an independent country, recently freed from the hated Soviet influence. Aliide is the widow of Martin, a supporter of the Communist regime. She appears to be a harmless old lady, cooking up her brews, living a very small existence, with habits of suspicion and frugality. She is fearful for she must manage her house on her own and she is still taunted by village people for her Communist connections, although the village is more or less deserted. The young go to Tallin. 

Her life is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Zara, who is trying to escape from the traffickers who control her life. She is in a bad way. She has deliberately searched for this house and for Aliide. Reluctantly, suspiciously, Aliide allows her into the house and feeds her.

The book hops about in time, through the German occupation and the Soviet years. Neither was good for the village and its inhabitants. We learn more about Aliide’s past and her childhood in the village with her sister, Ingel. The re-evaluation of Aliide begins for the reader when we find that she had always been jealous of her sister’s beauty and accomplishments, and she resented her sister’s marriage to Hans, with whom Aliide is obsessed. 

The Communists have wanted to find Hans who opposed Communist rule, but the sisters hide him in secret places on their farm. Some brutal questioning takes place, including of Ingel’s child, Linda. The men involved reappear from time to time in the later narrative, and always have a terrible effect upon Aliide. 

Through Aliide’s contrivance using her husband Martin’s position, Ingel and Linda are exiled to Siberia, ending up in Vladivostok. This is the purge of the title, Stalin’s purge of Estonia’s collaborators with the German occupation. Aliide regains possession of the cottage and the care of Hans. Hidden from Martin and the village Hans becomes Aliide ‘s prisoner for several years, but he remains cold towards her. 

In the present of the novel, that is 1992, Zara’s traffickers are searching for her, and they have a good idea that she is near Aliide Truu’s cottage. She only managed her escape, after several years of sexual slavery, by violent means. Zara can speak Estonian, for it emerges that she is Linda’s daughter, Aliide’s great niece. As Pasha and Lavrenti close in on Zara, Aliide hides her as she hid Hans. 

 Brutality creates more brutality and finally, by appearing to be the sweet old lady we met at the start of the novel, Aliide finds a way to resolve Zara’s immediate difficulties. 

This novel has been issued in the ‘cult classics’ series by the publisher. Cult is a word that sometimes signals violence, and there is plenty of that in this book, especially violence against women. Suffering and mayhem has been visited on this village and its people and Estonia itself over the decades. The future is not likely to give Aliide a better life, although Zara can move on from her time as a sexual slave.

Purge does not offer any cosy solutions, or happy endings, or any comfortable idea that women working together will improve the world. Instead, it shows how deeply wounding the troubled history of northern Europe has been on women. The price of survival, and of collusion, is very high and includes damaged relationships, trauma, suspicion and violence, even within families, with no suggestion of resolutions. Perhaps the best image of this is the blowfly, which at the start of the novel is looking for rotting flesh in Aliide’s kitchen. It is also reproduced as a cut-out on the cover.

Sofi Oksanen

Born in Finland, with a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is well known in her homeland for her writing, plays, journalism and novels. Purge is her only novel to have been translated into English. It was first conceived as a play, then a novel and since its publication it has also been turned into an opera and adapted as a film. 

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, first published in Finnish in 2008, and the English translation by Lola Rogers by Atlantic Books in 2010. 262pp. 

Other European titles in the series: Older Women in Fiction

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg (Sweden)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Sweden)

The Door by Magda Szabo (Hungary)

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)

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My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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Not girls but WOMEN

A post to celebrate women. A new trend in titles began a few years ago when it became fashionable to include the word ‘girl’ in the title of novels, especially mystery or horror novels featuring young women and violence. We are in an age which makes a fetish of youth and devalues maturity, especially in women. I hate the patronising use of the word girl to refer to a young woman. In this themed post I celebrate ten titles that have claimed woman and celebrate maturity.

Of the ten books in this list, 9 are novels and one is an edited diary. They were all reviewed on Bookword and the links are included.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi (1975)

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Firdaus is awaiting execution for murder, having lived a life of exploitation by a series of men. It was an indictment of gender relations in Egypt at the time.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko lives a very small life serving in a convenience store. Her family try to encourage her into a more normal life, which risks overwhelming her. This is a critique of the pressures to conform in Japan, which can make young women childlike.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

An angry woman lives on the upper floor of a house in Boston, USA. Is she a mad woman in the attic? Loneliness and betrayal are the themes of this novel.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Mildred also lives above the action, in this case over a flat let to a rather stormy couple. She is a mature woman who understands that most people live with ‘the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction’.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

The prize-winning novel celebrates girls and women and never confuses the two. The lives of many women of colour are connected in this novel, mostly set in London. It was the best book I read in 2019.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (2015)

This is the title given to the diaries of Jean Pratt. She kept it for sixty-one years from 1925 carrying on through the war. She lived in Burnham Beeches, outside London and never married. The title explains her life.

Older Women in fiction series

Here are four titles from novels in the older women in fiction series. Of course these are about women in their 60s and over, and such subjects are not usually referred to as girls. I still think it is important to celebrate their titles. I notice that three of them are about Arabic women. None are from Europe or North America. I am not sure what that tells us, but perhaps only that there are different traditions in titles for novels.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (2016)

This is the story of a rivalry between two neighbours, Hortensia and Marion in Cape Town, South Africa and how they manage to argue and become reconciled. 

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (2014)

Translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen

The Palestinian diaspora is retold by an old woman, Ruqayya, who was born into a village taken over at the time of the Nakba. Family life must continue despite living in exile.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (2016)

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou

A mystical story with its origins in real events about an old woman who returns to her village in the military zone on the border of Iraq-Iran during their war. Her simple approach to life and her donkey inspire the soldiers.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2013)

Set in war-ravaged Beirut a widow is determined to hold on to her apartment. She leads a secret life translating western literature into Arabic.

Over to you

Can you suggest more titles to add to this list?

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The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

What if Jenny Erpenbeck’s main character had not died, not died, that is, once but four times: as a baby, as an alienated young woman, facing Stalin’s firing squad or falling down the stairs? One answer is that she will die in the end, an old woman of 90 suffering from dementia in a care home in newly reunified Germany.

In her 2015 novel, The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck explores the life of a woman in twentieth century Europe. Or perhaps it’s twentieth century Europe explored through the lives of a woman?

November is German Literature Month so here is my contribution (see below).

The End of Days

Every person alive today is having a sharp lesson from the Coronavirus pandemic: you cannot escape the brush of history. You cannot escape, she seems to suggest, however often she rewinds and allows her main character to live a little longer. And our own deaths do not end our lives as we, in turn, have influenced other people’s lives. In this novel there is the father who emigrated to the US (or didn’t), the discussion and writing with comrades (who might betray you), the children to whom you give birth (and who may never know their fathers) and the things you treasured such as the works of Goethe, a clock, brass buttons, a letter …

The German title for this novel was Aller Tage Abend. It comes from the German phrase: Noch ist nicht aller Tage Abend, it is not yet the evening of all days, which means something like it’s not finished until the end of all days.

So what if the child had died in her cradle in Poland, born to a Jewish mother and a lowly railway clerk in 1902? Her father would have emigrated to the US, and the family would not have moved to Vienna at the start of the First World War.

The family were hardly better off in Vienna as the father’s wages did not cover enough to eat, and the city was gripped by shortages of everything as a result of the war. What if the girl had not crossed the road at that point to avoid the ice and met the boy with whom she made a suicide pact? She would not have joined the Communist Party, become a writer and emigrated to Russia.

And in Russia, if her file had not been placed for random reasons in one pile rather than another, she would not have been a victim of Stalin’s purges. She would not have gone to live in East Berlin and become an esteemed writer in the GDR, a noted anti-fascist.

What if she had not fallen on the stairs? She would have gone on to live to her 90th birthday, losing her connection to the world, but loved by her son.

We see anti-Semitism at work, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of the Nazi party and the Anschluss destabilising inter-war Europe, the internecine battles within the Communist Party (he said, she said, I cannot affirm, I attest …) and the whole sorry history of 20th century Europe.

So much for the individual in history, then. This character hardly has a name, until the last book in which she is referred to only as Frau Hoffman. It may not even be her family name at birth. Children are born at random and absent fathers are everywhere. No political system can adequately protect or provide for all its citizens.  

This is not a shrug of the shoulders, ‘what if …?’ Our lives have meaning to ourselves and to others. And this we are shown between the start and close of this profound novel.

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. (5)

Many mornings he [her son] will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he has never wept before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with. (238)

But it is not yet the end of days.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, published in Germany as Alle Tage Abend in 2012, and published in English by Granta in 2014. The translation from the German is by Susan Bernofsky.

Related posts

In October 2017 I enthusiastically reviewed another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone. It was definitely one of the best books I read that year. I recommended it to my Book Group and they too thought it was excellent.

For more on German Literature Month 2020 see the blog called Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Abigail by Magda Szabo

It’s 1943, the Second World War is underway and Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Germany since entering the war in June 1941 to assist the Axis powers. In 1944 Germany decides to occupy Hungary because independent attempts have been made to negotiate an armistice with the UK and the USA. From the occupation Jewish people are in danger, and soon after the Hungarian army is defeated by the Red Army.

It is against this backdrop that Abigail takes place. Georgina is a spoiled young daughter of an army general, and has no idea about the danger she is in, nor about the decisions that are made to keep her safe. She is sent to a prison-like strict boarding school for girls. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is for her protection. What I liked about this book is that the story began about the girl, but gradually widened to consider the individual in the war in Hungary.

Abigail

This is a long book, almost 450 pages, and it begins with Georgina and takes its time to unfold the full implications of her situation. At first it is about her separation in 1943 from her beloved father in Budapest as she goes to boarding school, Matula, a long way away. How will she survive the separation? And will she fit in with the other girls? The girls in her class have very strong bonds of loyalty and two of them explain the rules and the restrictions. They also introduce her to the story of Abigail, a statue which is reputed to provide answers to difficult questions that are placed in the pitcher she holds.

Soon after her arrival Georgina betrays one of the secrets of her class that provide respite from the very strict regime of the school. From this point the girls refuse to speak to her. The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: she has personal possessions, for example, and then she tries to escape. She manages to make it up with the other girls and the story moves into its last phase. 

Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. Georgina’s father, the General, heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. He has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if the plot is discovered. It turns out that the Gina’s guardian angel is Abigail and that the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with a network of local people Gina is saved when her father is arrested. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

The story is told in great detail, the uniform, the rules, the teachers, the rituals etc. Each part of the story is built gradually. Occasionally plot details are trailed. ‘She had no idea that she would never see him again’ (269). It was Bánki’s present that led to the unravelling of Gina’s hiding place. 

A great number of things happened on that late November morning but it was only much later that she saw the connection between them. Every episode or image associated with that Wednesday fused in her mind – the gaping mouths of the dead fish, the filing cabinet standing open, the glazier’s assistant with his huge moustache, and the General. (257)

For some time we believe the mystery is to uncover the identity of Abigail, the person behind the statue. And like Gina, it is only later that readers can connect her to the smashed aquarium, the missing files and the other events of that morning.

Gina changes from being a spoiled little rich girl to a resourceful and determined (yet  opinionated) daughter of a General. While she is unwise, young, selfish, the reader still has sympathy for her in her various predicaments. One can admire her pride, her loyalty and her ingenuity. And in the end she has joined the network of people protecting what they can of Hungary. It is a long book but a gripping story.

Magda Szabo

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Later she published several novels which won her great acclaim, the first was Katalin Street in 1969. It was The Door that brought her international success. 

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in English in 2005. This was the 22nd in the OLDER WOMEN in fiction series, and you can read about it here.

Abigail by Magda Szabó first published in 1970 and in English translation by Macelhose Press in 2020. 442pp

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Some recent blog reviews:

A Life in Books included her review on 10th January this year.

HeavenAli published a review on 31st January.

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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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Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation