Tag Archives: English Pen Award

River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

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.

A Summary

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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The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation can be tricky, with so few reviews in newspapers and on blogs. I chose this one for three reasons. It won an award from English Pen who support writing in translation. And it is in Spanish, and I haven’t reviewed a book originally in Spanish for some time. And when it arrived, with two other possibilities, I liked the cover so much that my choice was made.

The story of The Winterlings

It is soon after the end of the war in the 1950s in the Spanish countryside. Two sisters, the Winterlings of the title, reappear in the remote village in which they grew up decades before. They move into their grandfather’s house, bringing a cow, some sheep and chickens and settle into life there. Where have they been? Their grandfather sent them away shortly before he was killed during the Civil War, and they spent time in England, doing domestic work, learning to be seamstresses and going to the cinema. Before their return one of them had briefly been married.

They came past one morning like the thrumming of a hornet, swifter than an instant.

The women.

The Winterlings.

The men bent over the earth straightened up to watch. The women stilled their brooms. The children stopped playing; two women with big, tired bones, as thought worn down by life, were crossing the town square.

Two women followed by four sheep and a cow with swinging gait, pulled a covered wagon filled with provisions and utensils. (3)

Much remains unchanged in the village, but there is a sense that change is on its way. The villagers remember everything. The grandfather had bought the brains of many inhabitants (as a way of putting money in their pocket perhaps), and now they want the ownership of their brains returned and the receipts cancelled. Then news arrives that Eva Gardner is in Spain to make films and one of the sisters goes to be her body double. The other sister has her teeth renewed, but falls ill and gradually dies. The remaining Winterling moves on.

There are so many mysteries in this village, especially concerning the two women. What happened to their grandfather and to the brief husband? What is the dental technician’s source of teeth? He has another secret – he’s a cross dresser. What was the role of their grandfather and the greedy priest during the Civil War? And why does the priest, who is also smelly, go up the mountain every day to read the last rites to a woman who is taking forever to die? How has the return of the Winterlings upset the villagers? What is wrong with the chickens?

The writing of The Winterlings

The novel is written in a naïve style, spare, almost primitive. The author herself says it derives from the oral tradition and many of the stories come from her own experiences or those of her family. Nothing is presented as strange, or with very much explanation or description. It has the air of a fable, of turning back the corner of a peep show. There is not so much a plot as a sense of place, with all its stories.

There is no explanation in the novel for the title, although it is an elision of winter and siblings. The author tells of how she drove past a sign to Las Inviernas and how that road sign sparked the novel’s origins.

You can read what Cristina Sanchez-Andrade says about writing the novel on the English Pen website. Here is the link.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, first published in Spanish as Las Inviernas in 2014, and in English translation by Samuel Rutter in 2016 by Scribe. 249pp. Winner English Pen Award

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.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

I came across these recent recommendations for 12 essential Spanish language female authors.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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