Tag Archives: novella

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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A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Her name has been linked to Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield; she has been compared to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir; and yet I hadn’t heard of her. Then Pushkin Press invited me to review a copy of her short stories, and I noticed that Heaven Ali is reading a novel by her called Marie

She is Madeleine Bourdouxhe, born in Belgium in 1906, who lived in both the French and Belgian capitals. Her first novel, La Femme de Gilles, was published in 1937 and Marie appeared in 1943. Her short stories were published in literary magazines in the late ‘40s. They were collected and published in Paris in 1985. Madeleine Bourdouxhe died in 1996. 

The Women’s Press published her translated stories in 1989. Pushkin Press published the English translations by Faith Evans in June 2019. My copy was provided by Pushkin Press, and I am most grateful.

A Nail, A Rose

The collection contains seven short stories and a novella. Her stories were mostly written after the war, in that period of economic depression and reconstruction and before French culture really flowered with the existentialists. France had much to consider in the post war years, some parts had been occupied for 5 years.

The writer’s style is spare and, at times, abrupt. The author assumes that the reader will do some work: for example, notice that the objects or people mentioned early in a story will be of significance later. 

Each story features a woman, sometimes giving her name to the story, sometime anonymous. She might be the narrator, or the focus of the third person narration. In every story there is considerable pain, often physical, sometime of love that has disappeared, or of relationships strained and in tension. She does not shrink from the visceral. The female body is ever present with its smells, leakages and lusts. ‘Anna’, for example, is a story about a woman who loves to dance, but her jealous husband uses violence to contain her spirit. 

Very little is explained, for example why the man hit the woman in the title story and why she then was calm with him and met him again. Precisely located in the story’s present, explanations are short or omitted. Sometimes flashbacks move the story on, as in ‘Leah’, where they refer to the woman’s earlier political activism.

I found myself responding strongly to the story called ‘Louise’ where a single mother works as a maid for Madame. Madame lends Louise her blue coat and Louise goes out to meet the man she wants to attract. As she waits for Bob to appear she begins to doubt herself.

Minutes passed, more and more slowly, and time began to drag. It must be lovely to wait when you know that someone is going to turn up, Louise thought to herself. Lowering her head, she went off into a sort of dream. She felt very pretty and very alone. (76)

In this way the author reveals much about Louise, and about her loneliness. The relationship with Bob proves to be an empty and unsatisfying one-night stand. But the experience of wearing Madame’s coat is much more significant and satisfying to Louise.

The novella, ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, follows a new mother who has to evacuate from the hospital immediately her baby is born as the Germans invade, and mother and child leave with the convoys to go to free France. She appears to only go a little further than the Loire, but eventually meets the Germans. This story is based on Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s experiences. As in her other stories, the people who appear are ordinary folk, and the mother with her baby experiences many small acts of kindness and care. She sees the soldiers as the people they are, first those in retreat and later the victorious ones.

I loved her writing, with its bare starkness. I was pleased to have been given a copy to review, because I would not have noticed her otherwise. Thanks to Pushkin Press. I might follow @Heaven_Ali soon by reading one of her two novels.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (2019) Pushkin Press

Translated from French by Faith Evans

Copy provided by Pushkin Press. 224 pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women in Translation

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

This novella, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, begins in the parched landscape of a Middle Eastern country, or perhaps of Afghanistan, in the shadow of mountains. A family is struggling to make a living from the orange grove, against the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors of the family.

The novella

The Orange Grove was written by a Canadian writer, who is also a theatre director and actor. It was translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Peirene Press in the East and West Series.

Larry Tremblay seems to invite the reader to share his struggle to understand participation in war and violence. The novella concludes in a North American city, where a theatre teacher, Michael, is staging a play about war and violence. Among his student actors is Aziz, a twin, now twenty, who grew up alongside the orange grove. Michael and Aziz struggle to find the ending for the play that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Aziz’s experiences in particular, and the reality of its aftermath.

He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)

The story of the twins, Aziz and Ahmed, attempts to bring us closer to such circumstances from which families were unable to escape. The father and grandfather of the twins tend the orange grove. One night the grandparents’ house is bombed and they are killed. Soulayed arrives preaching revenge, and demands that one of the twins is prepared by his father for a suicide mission on a base on the other side of the mountain. Ahmed is chosen. But Aziz has a terminal disease and their mother asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place.

The novella follows what happens after one twin leaves with the suicide belt to cross the mountain and how eventually the other twin goes to North America. He decides to become an actor, hearing so many voices in his head. Through his difficulties in helping Michael conclude his play he retells his experiences of the aftermath and dilemmas he and his family faced, especially when the truth about the target of the mission was revealed.

He addresses the audience at the end of the play.

‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)

You cannot fail to be moved by this story. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press publisher, said ‘this story made me cry. … This story reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’. We cannot fully understand individual experiences of the horrors of the world. But we can hear. And we can know that all refugees begin by being forced to leave their homeland, through violence, often committed for revenge or to create unrest and more violence. A thousand stories, not all ending well. Not all heard.

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2013 in French, 2015 in English) Peirene Press 2017. 138pp

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

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