Category Archives: Women in 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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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

My Brilliant Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Elena Ferrante?

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

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

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

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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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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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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