‘In Her Absence’ by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Review)

IMG_5216As you can imagine, I’m not exactly short of books here in my little corner of (suburban) Melbourne, but when I read something I like, there’s always a temptation to go looking for something else by the same writer – and a fair chance that it might jump the queue.  That was certainly the case with today’s choice, and the fact that it only ran to a rather generous 134 pages didn’t hurt either.  It’s a story of an obsessive love, told by a man who loves his wife – perhaps a little too much…

*****
Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence (translated by Esther Allen, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a novella told in the first person by Mario López, a small-town public offical in the Spanish provinces.  One day, when returning home from work, as usual wasting no time to get back to his apartment, he is met by – well, it should be his wife:

“The woman who was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca’s green silk blouse, Blanca’s jeans, and Blanca’s ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him – eyes the same color and shape as Blanca’s, but not Blanca’s eyes.  She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca’s that it was almost as if she really were Blanca, and she stooped a little to kiss him because she was slightly taller than he was, just like Blanca.”
p.1 (Other Press, 2007)

In a rather unnerving start to the novel, Mario’s doubts transmit themselves to the reader, but we soon realise that there’s a lot more to the story than we realise.

Having survived this unusual homecoming, the reader is then treated to Mario’s story, a tale in which he tells of the life he has built with his attractive wife, a younger woman he rescued from the ruins of her previous relationship.  At first, we feel sympathy with the slightly dull office worker, glowing in the reflection of the love he feels for the beautiful Blanca.  However, our feelings quickly change as Mario’s monologue starts to take an unexpected direction, hinting at an obsession that’s far from healthy…

In Her Absence is a great little book, a story I enjoyed immensely, running through it in little over an hour.  The writer creates a man who inspires sympathy and unease in equal measure as the reader is treated to his version of a love affair and a marriage which he fears may one day crumble into nothing.  In many ways, though, it’s Blanca who is the star of the story, rather surprisingly when you consider that she rarely speaks or appears other than in Mario’s eyes.  However, Mario’s intense focus on his wife forces us to look at her closely too, even if the writer rarely gives us enough information to make up our minds on what lies beneath the beautiful exterior.

What’s clear is that the man and wife are two very different creatures indeed.  Mario is a fearful, routine-loving man of the people, drawn up from the quasi-peasant classes by virtue of a good education.  Blanca, by contrast, six years younger than her husband, has a wealthy background, and she’s a young woman with a thirst for matters political and artistic.  While Mario has made a great social leap, he’s still painfully aware of the gulf between his past and that of his wife’s:

“Money, he thought, doesn’t only educate you, it also gives a particular sun-kissed glow to your skin and frees you from fear of uncertainty; money makes you cosmopolitan, teaches you foreign languages and foreign eating utensils, to feel at home and at ease among strangers.” (p.39)

Mario may have won the hand of the fair Blanca, but his insecurities will always have him suspecting that the happiness he feels is temporary and that one day his wife may simply drift away.

It’s this insecurity which leads to his dull life, rushing home from work every day, covering the short distance from his office to his apartment as quickly as possible, not only from the joy of seeing his wife again, but also from the fear that on this occasion she may not be there waiting for him.  Mario knows that she has a yearning for the bohemian life (having rescued her from the depths this existence had brought her to), and their choice of a comfortable home, in a small, dull town, has less to do with money than his desire to (subconsciously, at least) keep Blanca away from bright lights and flighty artistic types.  But you can’t keep a bird caged all the time:

“When he got home, Blanca wasn’t there: a note on the dining-room table told him she’d gone to a job interview and would be back soon.  If only he’d been paying attention, if only he’d noticed the chance repetition of certain names, coincidences that were already conspiring to wreak disaster upon him, while he, vigilant and inept, dazed, blind to what was irremediable, had seen nothing.” (p.53)

It might be time for Mario to face the facts – Blanca isn’t going to put up with small-town life for ever…

I decided to read In Her Absence having recently tried Muñoz Molina’s epic novel In the Night of Time, and while the style is similar in parts, these are two very different books.  In the Night of Time is a slow-burner, using its 650+ pages to full effect, each page slowly adding a further detail to the picture being painstakingly drawn (on a *very* big canvas…).  In Her Absence, though, moves much more quickly and is also, necessarily, a much more intimate piece of writing, with Mario’s first-person monologue drawing us into the story in a way that only occasionally happens in the longer work.

Where the books are similar, however, is in the writing itself, with each page dripping with lengthy, complex sentences with multiple clauses.  The effect here does differ to that of In the Night of Time, with the plot moving on more quickly, the writing describing actions rather than objects, streets and people.  I appreciated Edith Grossman’s translation of the longer book, but in some ways Esther Allen’s work on In Her Absence seemed even more impressive, with the translation bringing across both the vibrancy of Mario’s emotions and the slightly creepy air apparent in certain parts.  One thing’s for sure – In Her Absence is a much quicker read than the writer’s latest translated work, so if you want a quick taste of Señor Muñoz Molina’s style, this is definitely the one to try first ;)

One of the most interesting features of the book is the way in which we come full circle, with the opening scenes continuing on the final pages.  Mario is left with the woman he sees as being like Blanca, but not her, and part of the puzzle of the book is working out what this actually means.  Has Blanca betrayed him?  Has he finally given up on loving her?  Or has the woman he loved for so many years turned out to be just a figment of his imagination?

These are not questions the reader can expect to be fully answered, but you can be sure that things aren’t always as they seem.  It’s no coincidence that Mario’s wife’s name is Blanca – when faced with a blank, white canvas, many people paint their own impressions of what they want the other person to be.  Perhaps it’s time for Blanca’s true colours to shine through…

‘Zone’ by Mathias Énard (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 16)

IMG_2040Just when you thought I’d reached the end of my IFFP endeavours, with all fifteen longlisted titles read and reviewed, you’ll notice that there’s one more destination on the horizon, courtesy of a sixteenth member of this year’s crop of books.  Here at the Shadow Panel, we like to do things our own way, and over the past few years, we’ve chosen our own shortlists and even our own winners.  This year, though, we’ve surpassed ourselves, considering a book which the real judges deemed unworthy of the longlist.  Tickets please – the train’s about to leave…

*****
Zone by Matthias Énard – Fizcarraldo Editions (translated by Charlotte Mandell)
What’s it all about?
Zone takes place on a train journey between Paris and Rome, where Francis Mirkovic, newly retired from his work in the French intelligence service, is moving ever closer to a new life (and identity).  As he sits in the carriage, hung-over and exhausted, he thinks about the life he’s leaving behind, staring out of the window only to see his past reflected in his mind.

While part of the book looks at the man in the train, most of the story slips back in time, looking at the reasons why Mirkovic has decided to cut his ties with his former employers and head to Rome.  He’s a man with a past, one he’d rather forget, and every station he passes brings him closer to his new existence.  The truth is, though, that his past will follow him – the Zone is not a place you can escape that easily…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Undoubtedly.  I read Zone in 2014 (you can read my full review here), and Énard’s novel made it onto my shortlist of the best five books of my reading year.  It’s a stunning book, challenging and exhilarating, a fitting début for Fitzcarraldo Editions (even if Open Letter Books did publish an American version a few years earlier).  Whether it’ll take out the Shadow IFFP is uncertain, but I can assure you that it’ll be one of the books under consideration ;)

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Well, do you want the easy answer or the more complex version?

Easy – It wasn’t longlisted.

Complex – Erm, not really sure

Let’s just run through the process here.  The first hurdle is eligibility, and though there was a a0a94-img_5135previous American edition, this did not affect eligibility (it was checked specifically, according to my sources).  Next, we have to know whether the book was actually entered for the prize.  Again (and this information was confirmed by several people), we have a green light.  Finally, then, assuming that I haven’t been misled, the only obstacle was the decision of the judges, so the only conclusion I can come to is that the five people given the task of deciding the best piece of fiction translated into English and published in the UK last year decided that Énard’s epic novel wasn’t quite up to the quality of the other books they decided on.  Like The Investigation.  And Tiger Milk

We on the Shadow Panel (well, Stu and I, to be more precise) have thought about calling in books before, and even this year, there were several other titles we would have liked to see on the longlist.  However, this was the first time that a book’s omission seemed to surprise so many people, at least in our little corner of the blogosphere (and Twitter), and in many ways, we had little choice.  It was either draft Zone into the longlist, or accept that the judges knew better.

That was never likely to happen ;)

If it turns out that my information is wrong, and that the book wasn’t entered or eligible, then I suppose I’ll have to eat humble pie.  However, if the judges really expect me to believe that Zone was inferior to all of the titles on the longlist, then I’m not sure I can take their decisions too seriously…

The IFFP winner will be announced next week, and we’ll be revealing our Shadow champion a day or two earlier.  There’s every chance that this year will see the same winner for both prizes, but at least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we gave one of the best books of the year the attention it deserved.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject…

‘Street of Thieves’ by Mathias Énard (Review)

Street_of_Thieves-front_largeThose who have been following my ‘work’ with the IFFP Shadow Panel will have noticed my affection for Mathias Énard’s Zone (a book I’ll be revisiting on the blog in a couple of days’ time…).  It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I was interested in trying more of the French author’s work, and that’s where the kind people at Open Letter come in.  Having published the American version of Zone a few years back, last year they released his second book in English, one which was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.  Get your passports ready – this time we’re heading north, not south, and our starting point is Africa…

*****
Street of Thieves (translated by Charlotte Mandell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) begins in Tangier, where a Moroccan youth by the name of Lakhdar is attempting to balance his religious upbringing with impure thoughts for his cousin.  When caught in flagrante, he is forced to leave his home and spends the best part of a year roaming the country, surviving through his native cunning and the kindness of strangers.

Once he returns to Tangier, his friend Bassam introduces him to the Group for the Propagation of Koranic Thought, an organisation with seemingly benign intentions.  However, the more Lakhdar learns about the group, the more he suspects that they have a hidden agenda, and he watches with concern as Bassam is increasingly drawn into these secret activities.  An encounter with a pair of young Spanish tourists only accelerates the plan Lakhdar has had for a while – it’s time to leave Tangier behind and head over to Europe.  But if only it were that easy…

Street of Thieves is another excellent novel, once again superbly translated by Mandell.  While the style isn’t as unique as that employed in Zone, the writing is still powerful, with glimpses of the rolling sentences typical of the earlier book.  This is the story of a young man born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean and his struggle to make it over a stretch of water that looks much narrower from Europe than it does from Africa, a portrait of Énard’s zone from the other side of the divide.

The story is written in three parts, with the first set mainly in Tangier.  Lakhdar’s home town is a city with two faces, one for the locals, one for the tourists, and he and Bassam spend their days walking through the foreign half, dreaming of seeing the real thing (Europe) one day:

“We would exchange our castles in the sky, trade Meryem’s breasts for emigration; we would meditate this way for hours, facing the Strait, and then we’d go home, on foot, him to evening prayers, me to try and catch one more glimpse of my cousin.  We were seventeen, but more like twelve in our heads.  We weren’t very clever.”
p.12 (Open Letter Books, 2014)

The two friends each have their own way of dealing with their frustration, one with girls and French noir novels, the other with religion.  It remains to be seen which will bring greater happiness.

The second part of the book describes Lakhdar’s journey to Europe, a short trip on the map, but one of light years for an unwanted incomer.  Though he’ll get there eventually, life on the other continent isn’t all he dreamed it would be.  When he finally arrives at his ‘destination’, he’ll discover that the Street of Thieves, his new home, can be every bit as much of a prison as Tangier was.

While much of the focus is on one young man’s experiences, the background action looks at the wider context,  with much of the story happening against the backdrop of the Arab spring.  Many of the more explosive events happen elsewhere in North Africa, but Morocco is not immune to the feelings of unrest.  Lakhdar soon suspects that the true purpose of the group he’s working for might not be limited to using prayer and literature to spread their cause, leading him to worry about what Bassam is getting up to.  In this tense atmosphere, you never know what might happen next, or who’s watching you from the shadows (it’s tempting to imagine Francis Mirkovic, the hero of Zone, somewhere in the corner of a café, taking notes for his bosses…).

Much as Lakhdar attempts to avoid the darker side of the group he finds himself working for, one of the positive influences he finds there comes from the books he is asked to sell.  A keen reader and a budding linguist, he discovers the joy of Arabic, even if he doesn’t always practice what is being preached:

“When I got tired of the porn on the web (a little sin never did anyone any harm) I would spend hours reading, comfortably stretched out on the rug: little by little I got used to Classical Arabic, which is a sublime, powerful, captivating language of extraordinary richness.  I would spend hours discovering the beauties of the Koran through the great commentators; the simple complexity of the text astounded me.  It was an ocean.  An ocean of lights.  I liked to picture the Prophet in his cave, wrapped in his coat, or surrounded by his companions, on his way to battle.” (p.23)

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, a conflict probably repeated daily across the Islamic world, where young men juggle with the demands of faith and the temptations of the secular world.  Lakhdar comes to focus on the medium, rather than the message, and it is here that Énard’s background comes to the fore, with his love of Arabic evident in every description of the language.

It’s not just Classical Arabic that Lakhdar is able to escape into, though, as he’s just as likely to be found with his nose in something a little more down-market.  His penchant for French pulp noir novels serves as a welcome escape from the trials of everyday life.  Ironically, the French he’s learned from his harmless hobby is to lead him back into more serious territory.  Finding a job transcribing old French documents, he spends his days copying the death files of North African soldiers killed during the wars – again, very Zone-esque…

Street of Thieves often flows like a standard narrative, but occasional comments from the narrator remind us that the book is being told from a future perspective, with our young friend looking back at the past.  Ever so gradually, the reader senses that it’s all going to end badly – we’re just not sure how, exactly.  Énard plays with the reader, leaving tantalising hints of what’s to come, but despite these scattered clues,  the ending still comes as a shock (well, it did to me, at least…).

In the end, it’s both a story of a region and of one man’s struggle to avoid his fate, a tale of a turbulent time:

“You never remember entirely, never really; you reconstruct, with time, the memories in your mind.  I am so far, now, from the person I was at the time that it is impossible for me to once again exactly locate the power of sensations, the violence of emotions; today, it seems to me I would not be able to withstand such blows, that I would shatter into a thousand pieces.  No one would survive such powerful shocks.” (p.93)

Lakhdar’s story is complex and difficult to explain to an outsider, but Énard attempts to paint a picture of the man and the society – and succeeds.  It’s a great story which ends on a sombre note, a reminder that not every escape has a happy ending.  However, while the final scenes may be bleak, the book itself is a success.  Let’s hope that there’s more from Énard appearing in English very soon :)

*****
UPDATE (21/5/15) – As mentioned in a comment below, the UK version of Street of Thieves (with the same translation) will be out from Fitzcarraldo Editions in August this year :)

‘Your Republic is Calling You’ by Kim Young-ha (Review)

IMG_5206Most people have at least a casual interest in what is going on in the Korea north of the DMZ, but little fiction from the Democratic People’s Republic makes it to the wider world (which, judging by the only story I’ve read, is probably for the best…).  However, the topic is common in writing from the south, and authors such as Yi Mun-yol and Hwang Sok-yong have examined the situation across the border, setting stories in the north.  Today’s post looks at another book with roots in Pyongyang, but this time the action is all in Seoul, as we put twenty-four hours on the clock and see how a rather unusual day unfolds.  It’s time to discover where the heart really lies…

*****
Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is a day in the life of movie importer Kim Ki-yong, his wife Ma-ri and their teenage daughter Hyon-mi.  The action begins at 7.00 a.m. as the three get ready for the day, and Ki-yong goes off to work, ready for another dull, slightly uneventful, shift at the office.  However, this is to be a day to remember, with an unexpected email shattering two decades of Ki-yong’s hard work.

You see, our movie-loving friend, while outwardly an average, middle-aged drone in the Seoul hive, is actually an undercover ‘sleeper’ spy from the north, and the email he receives is his first contact with the homeland in ten years.  Turning to the poetry book which doubles as his code breaker, Ki-yong realises with a sinking heart what the message is:

“The seventeenth-century monk’s haiku that has planted itself in Ki-yong’s lap is starved of its literary significance, much like a camel that loses weight after passing through a vast desert.  Ripe nuances disappear and only one meaning remains: “Liquidate everything and return immediately.  This order will not be revoked.”  Basho’s haiku, like the order itself, hints at the end of dreams.”
p.26 (Mariner Books, 2010)

The message is clear, and the agent has less than a day to follow his command – but what if he doesn’t want to go home?

It’s a fascinating set-up for a novel, and the writer uses the rest of the book both to explore the horrible situation Ki-yong finds himself in, and to examine contemporary society through the eyes of a man who has suddenly found himself thrust into the role of an outsider once again.  The chapters, as well as having titles, all begin with a time, and the similarity with the television programme 24 is no coincidence – by creating multiple viewpoints (using the family members and a couple of other people who have become involved in events), Kim’s story is able to be played out in real time, characters criss-crossing Seoul in their attempts to make sense of the day.

The main focus is, naturally, on Ki-yong himself, and the early chapters see him going through the stages of panic, denial and acceptance, much more quickly than is usually the case in times of trauma.  With no information other than the curt words of the order, he has no idea why he is being recalled, and his fate back in the north is uncertain.  Perhaps, he’s being brought back to protect him from discovery and torture at the hands of the South Korean secret police; then again, it could well be his own people doing the torturing…

While the thought of his fate is continually on his mind, though, gradually he begins to reflect on what he will be giving up, his senses heightened by his impending departure.  Knowing that his ‘normal’ life is over, he begins to soak up the atmosphere of the large, capitalist metropolis which has been his home for twenty years:

“By now he is standing on the subway platform.  He hears the announcement that the train is about to arrive.  He draws in a deep breath, inhaling it all, like he is going to cherish these scents forever – minute dust particles, the smell of car lubricant, liquor on the breath of an old drunk, the perfume of a young, sexy woman.” (p.72)

These moments of nostalgia for a time he hasn’t yet lost are contrasted with scenes from his ‘former’ life in Pyongyang.  In flashbacks, we get to see his family life and his training as one of the elite agents of the north, walking around the streets of a fake underground Chongno (a famous Seoul street) in preparation for his later immersion into the real thing.  It’s clear to see that the decision to return to the north is not an easy one.

It’s probably an understatement to say that Ki-yong is having a bad day, but things aren’t running smoothly for the rest of his family either.  Hyon-mi, a smart, popular student, is having her first experiences with the workings of the opposite sex.  However, it’s Ma-ri who has perhaps the biggest secret, and anyone who happens to be tailing her might get a big surprise…

Your Republic is Calling You works very well in parts, and it’s easy to see why this was chosen for translation.  It’s an easy read on a popular topic, and while it’s not your conventional thriller, there’s enough happening in the background to keep the casual reader’s interest.  Part of the success of the book is the eye it casts over the south, just as much as the focus on the north.  Forced to see life through new eyes, Ki-yong realises that life in his adopted home, while more comfortable in many ways, is far from ideal:

“Everyone’s just struggling to survive.  They’re doing everything they can to survive.  Why was I the only one who didn’t realize that?” (p.300)

Ah, capitalism – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be…

However, the book isn’t all it could be either.  I’ve read several examples of Kim’s work now, and while I quite enjoyed the shorter pieces I tried last year (e.g. Photo Shop Murder), I wasn’t a fan of his historical novel Black Flower, and this one didn’t always hit the spot either.  He’s not a fan of showing, not telling – in fact, there are times when he delights in telling us what’s going on, dumping huge lumps of information into the reader’s path.  I’m also not that keen on the writing, and at times some great scenes (such as a pivotal conversation between Ki-yong and Ma-ri towards the end of the book) are undercut by poor prose.

At which point, I’d have to also look a little more critically than I’d like at the work of the third Kim here, the translator Chi-Young.  This is the third of her translations I’ve read (in addition to a few stories here and there), all by different writers, and I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any of them much.  In my review of Jung-Myung Lee’s The Investigation (a book about a famous Korean poet, lest we forget…), I commented on the flat prose, and the third of these books, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mother, was… well, long-time readers will know that I was far from impressed ;)  As an advocate for literature in translation, I do try to err on the side of caution when it comes to criticising the wonderful people who bring these books into English; however, three disappointments out of three means my opinion is starting to firm up a little…

Still, Your Republic is Calling You is by no means a disaster, and if you like the sound of a psychological thriller set in Seoul (and are slightly less fussy about prose than yours truly…), you may well enjoy this one.  I haven’t quite given up on Kim (and Kim) yet, and at some point this year, I’d like to try another by the same writer-translator team, the author’s break-out work in the west, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.  Here’s hoping that I’ll enjoy that one on more levels than just that of the story ;)

‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ by Erwin Mortier (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 15)

IMG_2040Once again, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has taken us all around the literary world, but today sees our bookish journey come to its close, with one final stop before we rest.  We’re heading over to a small country in the west of Europe, and winding the clock back too.  This is a book about memories and love – oh, and the inescapable shadow of war too.  Lest we forget…

*****
While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier – Pushkin Press (translated by Paul Vincent, review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Helena, an elderly, bedridden woman, is looking back at her life, deciding to chronicle the events of her youth in a series of exercise books, texts which will be destroyed after her death.  The words come to her unbidden, images from her youth which demand to be committed to paper:

“I can’t really call them memories, as I do nothing, they catch me unawares – unless the nature of remembering changes with the years.  Sometimes, as I doze, the echo of my breathing in the room around me seems to awaken past acoustic impulses.  Rooms which had been piled wall against wall backstage in the wings of oblivion again enclose me.”
pp.13/4 (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Gradually, having explained why she’s writing, Helena takes the reader back to her youth, a time which would certainly take some forgetting.

Growing up in a comfortable, middle-class family, the young woman is only vaguely aware of the world outside (a world her older brother is much more at home in).  However, this world is changing, and Helena’s small corner of the globe is not immune to the unrest.  Finding herself trapped on the other side of the front line once the Great War begins, she realises that life is not how she’d imagined it – even if the arrival of an Englishman means that change is not always a bad thing…

While the Gods Were Sleeping is definitely one of my favourite discoveries of this year’s IFFP crop, a beautiful book and one which I throughly enjoyed slowly making my way through.  I’m loath to mention the P-word as it’s overused in reviews, but the focus on memory and the detailed, lengthy sentences mean (unfair) comparisons with a certain dead French writer are inevitable.  Mortier’s novel is certainly a book which examines events in detail, but there is a story, even if for some it might move a little too slowly.

Once we move past the frame of Helena’s twilight years, much of the focus is on her developing relationship with Matthew Herbert, an English war photographer and journalist.  This is her first real exposure to men, and the outside world, and the reader follows the development of their relationship, a courtship accelerated by the knowledge of what is happening a mere few miles away.

However, eventually the romance is intruded upon by the war, and the couple’s journeys to the front line allow us to see the devastation wrought by the fighting on the small nation (Belgium was the scene of much of the worst of the WWI conflict…).  As Helena and Matthew travel through old towns destroyed by bombs and mortars, houses loom out of the mist, shells devoid of glass – and inhabitants.  From a safer distance, the couple stand on a hill and look out over the conflict in the distance:

“The silence became still more oppressive.  There was no salvo or cannon shot to be heard, there was only that glow of lines of light, crooked needles above the landscape, and here and there the short-lived flash of what must be explosions, but without a boom or echo, and we looked at them as if at a natural phenomenon, as if down below on the plain the earth’s crust were tearing open and two pieces of land were grinding into each other or trying to separate.” (pp.128/9)

The majesty of the spectacle and the extraordinary show of lights is a twisted reminder of the carnage taking place on the front line…

Away from the war, though, one of the main themes explored is the way in which the life of women of the time was limited.  Helena’s relationship with Matthew begins partly as a reaction against the constraints of her mother, and in her early years the daughter struggles to repress her anger  at the hypocrisy of her ‘captivity’.  While she is kept safely locked away, her brother is free to drink and mingle with the lower classes (and do a lot more besides…).

Her escape from this small world is into writing, especially poetry, but once again, her mother is not happy with her choice:

“For my mother, trains of argument and items of clothing were one and the same: they must button up tight, while I liked nothing better than lazing about in the hanging garden of Babylon in my open nightdress, proud of my blossoming curves, and climbing the ziggurats of books.  I surrendered myself to the cadence of silent speech that rose from their spines, the Styx of sentences, in which here and there, like driftwood or drowning people, words and images floated, which I more or less already understood, alongside much else that was not much more than shadowy stains in a dark flood.” (pp.18/19)

Nevertheless, Helena continues with her literary obsession, her need to write becoming a compulsion, one which continues right up to her final days in bed.  It’s not just about the writing either – Helena is just as fascinated by the texts of others, the words she reads helping to shape her own voice…

Mortier’s novel is an enjoyable read, with Vincent’s translation excellent for the most part.  The IMG_5209only point I didn’t feel fitted in was the dated slang used when Matthew was speaking (although it’s probable that this off-key language was used in the original to show how the Englishman’s French wasn’t quite as natural as it might be).  I certainly enjoyed the book, so I was very happy to learn that there’s more to come; apparently, While the Gods Were Sleeping is the first part of a trilogy, with the other two books seen through the eyes of different characters from the first part.  Those are books I’d be very happy to try – another excellent writer discovered on the IFFP journey :)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  This was one of my top few, easily making it onto my personal shortlist, and it’s the one book I’m sorry didn’t make the Shadow shortlist.  Several of my fellow judges found it a little slow, and while I can see why they might think that, I’d disagree.  Taking time to unfold a story is a good thing, especially if the writing passes muster, and the language here is excellent :)

Why did it make the shortlist?
Because it’s an excellent book from a great small publisher.  Oh, and I suspect the setting helped too – with no WWII standouts this year, this was the next best thing ;)

*****
So, after fifteen stops on our lengthy journey, it’s time to take stock of what we’ve seen (and what we’ve read), to make sense of the images and words racing through our heads as we look to decide which of the titles deserves to take out the prize – or is it…

You see, one of the problems with travel is that you can never get enough, and just when you think you’ve reached the end of the road, another, more enticing path opens up, and the journey starts over again.  With our original trip ending in Belgium, it’s a mere step down to Paris, where a man is waiting to make his own final journey, a trip through the ages and the horrors contained in his mind.

Let’s get moving – we’ve got a train to catch…

‘The Witch in the Broom Cupboard (and Other Tales)’ by Pierre Gripari (Review)

IMG_5211The last review by my assistant, Emily, was not quite as positive as the others she’s done so far, but that didn’t put her off trying another book from the Pushkin Children’s Books collection.  Today’s post looks at some short stories, a collection of tales featuring giants, witches and clever little children – let’s see what Emily made of all that :)

*****
What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Witch in the Broom Cupboard and Other Tales, and it’s by Pierre Gripari (and it’s translated by Sophie Lewis).

What’s it about?
It’s about magic and all other nonsense things.  The stories take place in the same area, and the characters are in two or three stories sometimes.  Some of the stories are scary, some of the stories are funny and some of the stories are in between :)

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
I wasn’t so sure about the first story – it was very gross!  But I liked all the other ones because they were mostly silly and sometimes funny.

What was your favourite story?
My favourite story was ‘The Giant Who Wore Red Socks’.  It’s a story about a giant who fell in love with a lady who was not a giant, so in a year he had to shrink, and he was granted three wishes.  I liked this one because it was funny, especially the bits where he had to travel.

I also liked ‘Scoobidoo, the Doll Who Could See Everything’.  It’s about a boy who has a doll that is very strange.  If he wants to play dominoes with the doll, he either blindfolds her or leaves her as she is.  If he blindfolds her, she will always win – she can grant wishes and see into the future and the past!

Was it difficult to read?
No, just the names and the places.

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I would recommend it to fans of gross things!

Emily, thank you very much.

*****
I was a tad concerned at first as my little girl (obsessed as she is with dancing and fairies, preferably dancing fairies) was not overly taken, as she mentioned above, with the first story (‘The Witch of Rue Mouffetard’).  Of course, I can’t really blame her:

Now, a little girl whose name was Nadia happened to be living in the very same neighbourhood as the witch.  She was the eldest daughter of Papa Sayeed (perhaps you know him?), who kept the cafe-grocer’s on rue Broca.
     “I shall have to eat Nadia,” the witch decided.
‘The Witch of Rue Mouffetard’, p.10 (Pushkin Children’s Press, 2015)

The choice of Nadia is because the child’s name has to begin with ‘N’ for the spell the witch is planning to work.  If the author had chosen the letter ‘E’, I fear Emily wouldn’t have got past this page…

Luckily, though, the remaining stories, bizarre as they are, steer clear of potential cannibalism, and Emily was happy to spend time in Gripari’s unusual imagination.  With witches, giants, pigs and a talkative potato, there’s something here for everyone – well, apart from those looking for strict realism – with some excellent illustrations courtesy of Puig Rosado.

As usual, Pushkin have selected a top-class translator, Sophie Lewis, whose work I’ve tried before in the shape of the Marcel Aymé collection, The Man Who Walked through Walls.  If you’re going to do this translated children’s fiction thing , you may as well do it properly, and there’s no doubt that Pushkin have taken their venture very seriously (the only way to ensure that something is fun!).

Another success, then, even if my daughter really prefers chapter books to short story collections (obviously, genetics are at play there…).  Here’s hoping for further interesting books in the future, more classics from overseas translated for the benefit of our children…

…although I hope they don’t contain too many children-eating witches ;)

‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

IMG_5210Another year, another slice of self-absorbed Norwegian musings… Yes, May has rolled around again, so it’s time for the latest installment of embarrassing recollections from everyone’s favourite grumpy Scandinavian, Karl Ove Knausgaard.  This time around, puberty has struck with a vengeance, and Knausi is only too eager to discuss his teenage talents and shortcomings.  Let’s put the needle back on the record – time for part four of his ‘struggles’…

*****
Dancing in the Dark (translated, as always, by Don Bartlett) sees the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard heading north, where he is to work for a year as a teacher in a remote community.  Unwilling to head off to university, or find proper work, he sees the time as an opportunity to work on his writing in an environment with fewer distractions.  However, the reality is that, even in far-flung Hålfjord, there’s football to be played, alcohol to be drunk and (oh yes) girls to be pursued.

Just when we’re starting to settle into life in the north, though, the writer abruptly drags us back down south.  Rewinding two years, we see the writer as a surly teenager, about to head off the rails in a big way.  With his parents’ divorce finalised, Karl Ove decides that it’s time to have some fun away from the stern eye of his father, drinking whenever and wherever he can in the hope that the alcohol will make his life more enjoyable.  There’s also the small matter of his central goal for his final teen years – to finally rid himself of his unwanted virginity…

This is the fourth installment of Knausgaard’s story, and it’s every bit as self-centred and self-absorbed as the others.  Those who have never tried his work before will wonder what’s going on – welcome to Karl Ove’s world…  The book reads like a teenage boy’s diary at times, but old hands will see it for what it is, a man’s attempt to mine the past in order to better understand his present.

The latest adventure has a new angle, his attempts to come to terms with small-town life.  You see, Hålfjord is a place where everybody knows your name (and your dad’s and your girlfriend’s):

“They had grown up and gone to school together, they worked together, they partied together.  They saw one another virtually every day and had done so virtually all their lives.  They knew one another’s parents and grandparents, many of them were first or second cousins.”
p.119 (Harvill Secker, 2015)

Knausi is a new attraction, and this is his chance to make an impression.  Having left his old life behind, he can use the opportunity to remould himself and show a different side to his character.  Then again…

He certainly does his best to persuade the local girls that he’s someone they should get to know, though.  Dancing in the Dark is, at times, a tale of pursuit and conquest, the musings of a confused, horny teenager, obsessed with popping his cherry:

“Could I?  Could I?  If, against all the odds, I succeeded in manoeuvring myself into a suitable situation and was in a room alone with a naked girl, would I be able to make love to her?  Would I be able to go through with it?” (p.83)

With a little (or a lot) of alcohol in his system, he’s actually quite successful in getting to know the girls; if only he could get over his mental and physical concerns.  I won’t go into them in detail here, but never fear – Karl Ove will give you a detailed account should you choose to read the book.

While most teenagers can be forgiven for lusting after the opposite sex, one issue here is Knausgaard’s (undeserved) status as a teacher.  He’s an eighteen-year-old teaching teenagers in an area of the country where the age of consent is flexible, and much of the story focuses on his struggles to stay detached and professional in the face of young beauty (in a town where most women between the ages of eighteen and forty have left for greener pastures). On reading this, I couldn’t help but think back to my own experiences as a language assistant in France when I was twenty-one.  Believe me when I say that pedagogical professionalism is not something you’re born with…

Setting the fairer sex aside for a moment, Dancing in the Dark looks at some more serious issues too.  Karl Ove’s father has left the family, but he still overshadows the son’s life.  As the father begins to drink seriously, so too does the son (an inherited trait) – these men sink a *lot* of alcohol in this book.  The father is slowly beginning to destroy himself, and while Karl Ove is still fairly young (and seemingly indestructible), those who have read the earlier books can see the early signs of the more damaging behaviour described in A Man in Love.

Whatever your take on Knausi, there’s a lot to like in this book.  It’s a pleasant look back at the mid-eighties, with plenty of references to football, television and (especially) music.  The writer is incredibly self-mocking, always happy to make himself the butt of any joke, baring his most pathetic flaws for the world to see.  It’s hard to believe that anything is held back – this is all painfully embarrassing.  Much of the story appears to be written in the style of a teenager, one who truly believes that his writing is great, even if he can barely understand the books he reads.  In truth, his writing (like the teenager himself) is awkward and clumsy, even childish at times.  We can see the man between the lines, though, with occasional glimpses of the adult writer guiding the story.

Despite all this, Dancing in the Dark has its issues too – in fact, for me, this is the weakest of the series so far.  The tone is well done, but it doesn’t actually make for a great read (I found that the more childish, innocent tone of Boyhood Island worked better than the sullen teen voice used here).  Another problem I had with the book was the way the action switched back two years, taking us from his new home back to his house in Kristiansand.  I can see why he did it – he sets up the situation in Hålfjord, then gives an explanation of how the younger Knausgaard got to that point.  The trouble is that it disrupts an interesting story, and when we go back, events never really reach the same heights

The worst problem, though, is the casual, persistent sexism which pervades the book.  This is what Knausgaard does (and full marks for refusing to hide his immaturity), but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is a book where women are mere sexual objects, objectified at every turn, a story with an obsession with breasts which would make even Murakami blush.  I’ve talked about the gender issue in my previous reviews, wondering whether female readers would appreciate Knausi’s tales as much as men – I really wonder if women will even want to finish this one.  What I can say is that if they do make it to the end, the final scene may well make them wonder why they bothered…

The general consensus from overseas is that the middle parts of My Struggle are the weakest links, and I definitely found this one the least convincing of the books by far.  However, I did enjoy parts of it, and it’s clear why he wrote this as he did, showing himself as an overconfident, yet confused, teen.  Having come this far, I’m not about to abandon the series now (especially as I’ve heard that the final volume is a good one), but I do hope that Part Five is a little more like the first two.  Another 500 pages of drinking, sex and immature bravado may have me reaching for the bottle myself…

‘Tiger Milk’ by Stefanie de Velasco (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 14)

IMG_2040The IFFP magical mystery tour has taken us to several places this year, but inevitably the path keeps bringing us back to Germany (unsurprising when you consider that a third of the books chosen by the judges were by writers of that nationality).  However, today we’ve finally reached the last of our Teutonic texts – it’s time to let our hair down and have a few drinks.

Not sure I’m too keen on what’s on offer, though…

*****
Tiger Milk by Stefanie de Velasco – Head of Zeus (translated by Tim Mohr)
What’s it all about?
Nina and Jameelah, two fourteen-year-old girls in Berlin, are getting ready for the summer holidays.  School’s almost out, and it’ll soon be time to laze about at the outdoor swimming pool, cruise the city streets and get drunk on ‘Tiger Milk’, their own lethal invention of milk, maracuja juice and brandy.

Their main aim for the holidays, though, is to have sex, and they already have their targets in sight.  However, life rarely works out the way you expect it to, and over the long hot summer, the girls will discover what it’s really about – particularly when you see something you really shouldn’t have…

Let’s get this out of the way now: Tiger Milk was, for me, easily the weakest of the books on the longlist, a novel which is completely out of place in this company.  Of the Shadow jurors who’ve read the book, most agreed, and I don’t think I’m breaking confidentiality too much by saying that this was rock bottom of our list.  I’m not going to spend the post tearing it to pieces, though, because it’s not de Velasco’s fault; this is a YA novel, and I’m not a YA reader.  Let’s just blame the judges for sending the book into a gun fight armed only with a lollipop ;)

The aim of the novel is to explore the youth of present-day Berlin, a multicultural metropolis far from the stereotypes of Germany past.  Jameelah is from Iraq, and she and her mother are hoping to receive German citizenship, always aware that visas can be revoked at any time.  Nini is also friends with teens from Bosnia and Serbia, and the way in which distant conflicts carry over into foreign lands is to form one of the main strands of the story.

As well as being multicultural, the setting for Tiger Milk is a predominantly working-class one.  The girls are living very much in the here and now, mainly because there may not be much of a future to think of – and because (for Nini, at least) role models are thin on the ground.  Her mother lies around in a daze for the most part, and her younger sister is constantly fooling around with a neighbour, watching porn she finds hidden in the house.  With the future a distant and uncertain prospect, it’s litle surprise that the focus is on enjoying yourself while you can.

Nini has a rather childish voice (unsurprising for a child…), and this comes through when she talks about the world around her:

“Last year there was a stabbing at the pool, so this summer it’s crawling with security.  I think it’s good because now people are afraid to steal things.  But it’s not really as dangerous a place as it sounds.”
p.39 (Head of Zeus, 2014)

One of the book’s stronger aspects is the way in which the babyish behaviour lulls the reader into a false sense of security, so that when matters really do become serious (in the one truly great scene in the book), we are completely blindsided…

The second half of the book is slightly darker, and de Velasco explores Nini’s feelings as the IMG_5205summer progresses: the sexual experimentation, the attempts to work through the shock of what she’s witnessed and the realisation that she and Jameelah, while close, have very different lives.  Living in Germany is very different to being German, a lesson Nini has to learn very quickly.

The book starts with two care-free girls at the start of a seemingly endless summer, two young souls having fun:

“We take turns drinking Tiger Milk, we look into the sky and say nothing, we just let life float by because we have so much time, because the clock has only just struck fourteen minutes past birth, meaning that we have almost fifty minutes of life to go, and that’s a long time.” (p.91)

Having finished the book, I now find this a sad passage.  The truth is that life doesn’t run at a constant pace, and the sands of your life can run more quickly at times – or disappear altogether…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, and it was out of place on the longlist.  This is another of those books selected for a wider reading audience, a novel to show people that fiction in translation isn’t all high-brow and challenging.  It’s a nice idea, but if you wouldn’t do it for the Man Booker Prize, why should you do it for the IFFP?

Oh, wait…

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Because it wasn’t good enough.  Moving on…

*****
All of which leaves us with just one more of the chosen destinations to visit.  Let’s head west, crossing the border (and winding back the decades) on the way.  Our final stop is Belgium, where we’ll see that while some things were similar a century ago, other things were very different indeed.

No Tiger Milk in sight, I guarantee it ;)

‘Sphinx’ by Anne Garréta (Review)

sphinx_intro_rgbWhen new indie press Deep Vellum announced their first four titles a while back, the two which caught my eye were by male writers, Sergio Pitol and Mikhail Shishkin (the latter mainly because I’d already tried two of his books, Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark).  However, life rarely follows plans to the letter, and it turns out that the books I’ve got to first are the ones by women.  Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft has already made quite a splash, and today’s choice may well draw its fair share of admirers too.

And while we’re discussing gender…

*****
Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (translated by Emma Ramadan, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a thought-provoking novella, part philosophical tract, part wistful love story, describing a nameless narrator’s descent into the Parisian night scene.  After being introduced to a fashionable club by a priest (no, that’s not a typo), our friend spends the nights discussing theology against a background of hypnotic beats, watching the beautiful people of the French capital move to the music.

When the DJ of the club becomes (permanently) indisposed, the narrator glides seamlessly into the booth, quickly becoming a fixture not just of The Apocryphe, but of all the other clubs and burlesques around, and it’s not long before we are introduced to A*** – at which point a charged, sensual pursuit evolves.  A***, a dancer, appeals to the narrator, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) their differing personalities – but how long can such a mismatched relationship survive?

Sphinx is a fairly brief work, clocking in at around 120 pages, but it’s one that you’ll need to read carefully, for a number of reasons.  While some sections are light and breezy, pulling us along through the Parisian nights in the wake of our young, charismatic guide, others are more contemplative, with the theology student’s intellectual side coming to the fore.  Whatever the tone, though, the writing is rarely simple, forcing the reader to stay on their toes, lest they miss some information holding a key to the novel’s secrets.

The text is written as a memoir of sorts, with the narrator reflecting on the events of youth, a decade or more in the past:

“Remembering saddens me still, even years later.  How many exactly, I don’t know anymore.  Ten or maybe thirteen.  And why do I always live only in memory?  Soul heavy from too much knowing, body tired from feeling pensive and powerless at the same time, so riven by this obsessive ennui that nothing, or almost nothing, can distract it anymore.”
p.1 (Deep Vellum, 2015)

From the distance of maturity, the events of those heady years develop a different feel, less imbued with a happy, nostalgic air than pronounced in a sombre tone, as if all that happened was experienced by someone else, a person who no longer exists.

The narrator is a theology student, tempted into the darkness by the drabness of the ‘light’.  This descent into the Parisian underworld can be seen as a ‘fall’ of sorts (one facilitated by the friendly priest…).  Our friend is successful and intelligent, but jaded – there’s a need for something to really live for, and it turns out that this is to found in the clubs:

“The Apocryphe!  Dark nights light up with red.  Somewhere between brothel and butcher shop, its ambiguous essence was never revealed except to those who knew how to decipher mirrors’ reflections.  One had to guess at everything, trying to grasp words on lips, fugitive gestures, events captured in the mirror, while pretending to stare at oneself.  A macabre masked ball, people tripping over streamers that snaked down from the ceiling and coiled around the supporting pillars” (pp.9/10)

The distance from doctrine seminars to the hedonism described here is quite a fall for an ambitious young student – one which is complete when A*** comes to dominate the scene.

The second major character of Garréta’s novel is a dancer exuding energy and sexuality.  The narrator is unable to resist, setting off on a determined pursuit, despite the warnings of friends and acquaintances who fear that the two are ill-matched.  However, it seems, initially at least, that their romance is a case of opposites attracting and complementing each other:

“That night the inversion was complete: I made myself into a demon, and A*** symmetrically put on the mask of the angel I had abandoned.” (p.43)

With the lovers in each other’s arms, the fall is complete, but literature (and life) is rarely that simple – what happens afterwards, once the gloss of the relationship has worn off?

You may have noticed that the word ‘fall’ appears several times above, and that’s no coincidence.  The narrator twice mentions Albert Camus’ novel(la) La Chute (The Fall), a book which features a rather one-sided conversation between an anonymous visitor and a chatty fellow whose successful life began to spiral out of control after a tragic event.  In Sphinx, we feel ourselves placed in the role of Camus’ patient listener (you’ll have to bring your own drinks, though…), with Garréta’s narrator also using us to unload an emotional burden.

While the narrator of The Fall has a far more sardonic, sarcastic air than the unhappy soul relating the events of Sphinx, there’s definitely a temptation to draw parallels between the two books.  Both are seemingly post-religious narratives, with their respective protagonists concerned with the question of how we can find happiness in a life which inevitably moves towards decay and death.  The ending of Sphinx, in Amsterdam, is also a nod towards The Fall, with both the location and the canals reminding us of the turning point of Camus’ work.

All in all, Sphinx is an excellent book, one to read quickly and reread at leisure – it’s just amazing that it took this long for it to appear in English.  Props to Will Evans at Deep Vellum for getting this one out, and thanks to Emma Ramadan for doing a wonderful job on the translation.  What in particular?  Well, you see, the real secret of the Sphinx is yet to be revealed…

*****
I feel that I’ve forgotten something here – oh yes…  The main feature of Sphinx is that the sex of the two main characters, the narrator and A***, is never revealed (you may have noticed that I attempted to do the same thing in the first part of my review…).  Garréta is a member of OuLiPo, a group of writers attempting to create literature while fighting against the constraints of language, and while Sphinx was written well before her admission to the group, the novel certainly fits OuLiPian criteria.

Slowly, details of the lovers are revealed (the narrator is white, young, a theology student; A*** is black, American, a dancer with a sculpted body), but it is left to our imagination to assign gender roles; if we want to, of course.  This is a love story where (if you accept a binary view of gender) there are four possible alternatives, and the reader has no idea which the ‘real’ one is.  Garréta, amazingly, hides the sex of the two main protagonists throughout the whole book, fighting with all her might against the rigid constraints of a language designed to put people in their place, and keep them there.

Ramadan, while facing different issues, has a similar fight on her hands.  While she is freed from the conflict Garréta had with French gender-defining verb endings, a different struggle emerges where the new writer must tackle the way English uses possessive adjectives and pronouns to pin down the protagonists’ gender.  Sphinx contains an excellent translator’s afterword which details more of the difficulties Garréta faced in French (constraints which, to some extent, determined how her characters behaved) while also outlining the issues the translator herself had in English.  You can check out a slightly different take on the topic in an essay published in Five Dials, in which Ramadan expands on the issues inherent in translating the book, and the methods she adopted to resolve them.  I struggled to hide the truth for 700 words or so – 120 pages is some feat :)

All in all, then, Sphinx is another wonderful addition to the body of fiction available in English.  Please check it out and, if you have the time, why not try some of the other Deep Vellum releases too – on the strength of the first two I’ve read, they’ll definitely be worth your while, whatever your gender…

*****
P.S. Emma Ramadan also pointed me in the direction of an excerpt over at Recommended Reading, one accompanied by another (brief) translator’s thought – even more to tempt you to give the book a go :)

‘How in Heaven’s Name’ by Cho Chongnae (Review)

IMG_5213Over the seventy years since the end of the Second World War, there have been so many fictional accounts of the conflict that readers could be forgiven for thinking that there can’t be much new to say about it.  However, every so often you do stumble across a book which takes a look at the subject from a slightly different perspective (which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why the war is such a popular literary topic), and today’s choice shows us the war years through the eyes of Korean soldiers.  They’re about to embark on an epic journey, one they hope will end with a return to their mother country; the only thing is that they’re going the long way round…

*****
Cho Chongnae’s How in Heaven’s Name (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Merwin Asia) begins in Mongolia, where the Japanese Guangdong army is in disarray, falling back in the face of an onslaught from Russian tanks.  Shin Kil-man and his fellow Korean ‘volunteer’ soldiers are certain that their days are numbered, knowing that if the Russian firebombs don’t get them, their suicidal officers probably will.  However, some of the stragglers manage to avoid both enemy bullets and orders to kill themselves, and for a brief time they are in the relative safety of Russian captivity.

In the midst of a global conflict, though, rest and a full belly are ephemeral concepts, and the soldiers soon have a choice to make.  Having been forced into the Japanese Imperial army, the Koreans are seen as the enemy-of-my-enemy by the Red Army troops – which in the logic of war makes them friends of the Russians.  With a stark choice between an uncertain captivity and a second military career, many of the Koreans opt to join Stalin’s troops.  Now if only the Germans weren’t attacking in the west…

How in Heaven’s Name is a fairly short novel, but it certainly packs a lot into its pages.  It’s the story of how Korean soldiers found themselves on a journey half-way around the world, swapping uniforms several times in a desperate attempt to keep themselves alive and eventually make it home.  It would be easy to write this off as fantasy were it not for the fact that this is all based on true events, with eyewitness accounts telling of Korean soldiers involved in war arenas as far apart as Mongolia and Normandy.  Each move takes the soldiers further away from where they want to be:

     “Doesn’t it feel like we’re getting farther and farther from home?” said Kang.  His voice had taken on a gloomy tinge.
     “I guess.”
     “Heaven only knows what’s going to happen to us.”
p.31 (Merwin Asia, 2012)

Sadly, many of those involved will be dead long before the war ends…

While How in Heaven’s Name is a novel about World War Two, in many ways it’s also a book exploring the feelings of men forced by circumstance to leave their homes behind.  In the first chapter, Kil-man is in the middle of the Mongolian plains, still disconcerted by the open spaces:

“Having lived all his life in a land where beyond the mountains were more mountains, he was still getting used to the notion of a horizon.  He had often seen a horizon at sea but the concept of a horizon on land was new to him.” (p.12)

Fighting a losing battle in Nomonhan (a place some of you may have heard of from reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) is just the first step on the journey.  There’s to be long trips across the plains, the bitter cold of Russia and the warmer (but still deadly) climes of the Atlantic coast.  Seoul is a very long way away.

Once captured by the Russians, Kil-man is delighted to find other Koreans, and in flocking together, they give each other the strength they need to survive, despite their homesickness.  In fact, once out of the clutches of the Japanese, there’s often a light tone to their banter, with dreams of rice and kimchi contrasting with the realities of western food, cuisine which isn’t always to their liking:

     “Strangest bread I ever tasted,” grumbled Chong impatiently.  “Why do you suppose it’s so sandy – and what happened to the taste?  First time I ate it I figured the baker must have made a mistake, but every day it keeps coming out the same.  How do they expect a man to live on this stuff?”
Pae stopped chewing long enough to scowl.  “Yeah, really.  Maybe the wheat they grow in Germany is the problem.”
(p.82)

Now if only that were the biggest problem the Korean soldiers had to deal with…

Away from the Korean issues, though, this is still a novel about the war, and as time passes, the reader knows how events are likely to pan out.  One of the problems here is that the Korean soldiers don’t, and in their travels across Europe they will change sides, and uniforms, several times, without knowing which side will eventually come out on top.  Once the war has come to an end, there may well be a price to pay for those who have made poor choices over the previous years, and home might be further away than ever.

How in Heaven’s Name is certainly a fascinating story, and anyone with an interest in the war will enjoy reading about this little-known aspect.  At just under 140 pages, it’s a surprisingly quick look at the topic, and the style is fairly straightforward, meaning most readers will knock this off in a couple of hours or so.  For a writer whose fame in Korea rests primarily on gigantic, historical romans-fleuves, this book seems a little slight, but perhaps it will encourage publishers to take a look at his meatier back catalogue (although I’m not sure just how much appetite western presses have for Korean historical fiction…).

In the meantime, though, this is one of the few chances you’ll have to try Cho’s work, so if this sounds like your kind of book, you should give it a try.  Yes, there’s a definite focus on the Korean experience, but the truth is that the hardships the soldiers face on their travels are universal.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter what uniform you’re wearing – if you’re one of the footsoldiers on the ground, whoever wins, you’re likely to end up losing…

*****
P.S.  For those wanting to know more, Charles Montgomery, over at KTLit.com, linked to an interview with the translators in which they discuss the book.  It’s about twenty-minutes long and it’s well worth a look :)