What I like about reading fiction in translation is that everything is questioned; everything familiar about fiction written in English is made unfamiliar. I find that exciting and unsettling and I finish these monthly forays into Women in Translation always a little chastened, wondering at the stretching of my ideas about fiction, life and the world.
Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is my choice for July in this series. Among many things, she makes me ask myself, what is fiction? For here one finds diaries (fictional or not?), reports, photographs, line drawings, diagrams, memoir and reflections, particularly on the subject of the polar explorers and on ice. It was published in Barcelona in 2015 as Germa de gel and was translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.
First it was the tabular icebergs, which appeared floating in the local pool. Narwhals got in through a crack in the tiles at the bottom. In the chlorinated water, I squeezed a bit of white ice in my hand, making a game of sinking it and letting it resurface. A dream. Later, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw icecaps in the blue tutus on Degas’s ballerinas. (15)
I found this to be a strange novel, difficult to get into. I have quoted the opening paragraph. It does not obey many of the rules for hooking the reader. In fact, it is quite obscure. But the reader is soon offered so much information, so many ideas, (I love the ballerina tutu image), so that many of us have stuck with it. The themes of ice and polar exploration soon emerge.
Part of the novel is the story of the writer’s struggles as an artist, in Barcelona, with galleries, her work and so forth. Some of it is about her youth, and especially growing up with an autistic brother. Alicia tells us about her family, how her father left, her mother became fixed on her work at school and care for her son, who cannot do the simplest thing without being instructed. Her writing, about the her (?fictional) past, is down to earth, authentic.
The Alicia of the novel makes her way gradually as an artist, often poor, often doing awful jobs, sometimes in a relationship sometimes not. Life is hard and she questions all the time why she is writing this.
She also offers us riffs on her many experiences, on ideas that emerge. For example she produced a taxonomy of gifts (poisoned gift, regift, betrayal gift, apology gift, crap gift etc), and makes observations about the necessity to read the language of nature to learn more about the natural world.
And there is a great deal about the compulsion of the polar regions for the explorers who wanted to be first to the poles, about the trials of their expeditions.
What I liked
I enjoyed the accumulation of all this. And I was captivated by the central idea of the impermanence and unfixed-ness of things – of ice, the poles, life, love, the family, one’s ideas and achievements. I also like the idea that the writer and the reader is something like those polar explorers.
I especially enjoyed the final section of the novel, set in Iceland. The airline looses her luggage, she goes to visit the waterfalls and the valley of the first Icelandic parliament on excursions. I recognised the country I have visited. Of the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) she writes:
Its energy and ferocity combined with the purifying power of the water exert a magnetic pull on me that I can’t quite rationalize. (221)
The novel won the English Pen Award and came to me through the Asymptote club. My name appears in the list at the back, because I supported the publisher.
Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, published by And Other Stories in 2015. 256pp
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Women in translation series
Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas
Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
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