‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera (Review)

Signs-Preceding-the-End-of-the-World_CMYK-SMALL-300x460As you may have noticed, the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize featured no Spanish-language fiction, surprising in such a great year for writing from Spain and Latin-America.  While our Shadow Panel was tempted to add one of the many books that missed out to our list, the lack of a consensus as to which one should be chosen meant we reluctantly left things as they were.  However, today’s choice on the blog is a book which came up frequently in those discussions.  In truth, if I’d read it earlier, it might well have got my vote…

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman, electronic review copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a short work following the journey of a young woman from her home country across the border in an attempt to fulfil her mother’s request that she bring her brother (who had made the journey earlier) back home.  Makina, as is soon clear, is a resourceful woman, one who achieves her tasks with a minimum of effort and words.  This, though, is a very dangerous journey, with far more at risk than is initially clear.  While the main objective is to bring her brother home, far more important for Makina is making the reverse journey before it’s too late…

The book which made And Other Stories’ name is Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, and when reading Signs Preceding the End of the World, you can’t help but notice a few parallels.  It’s another short, slightly bizarre work from a young Mexican writer (on a side note, Mexican writers, both male and female, seem to be everywhere at the moment), and it has created the same sort of buzz and positive feedback for the press as Villalobos’ crazed novella did.  In style, however, it’s a very different kind of work.  There’s a slightly eery tone to the book, a story happening in black-and-white, almost silent at times.

From the very first page, we know that Makina is a survivor, and when she is given her task, she sets off stoically, first making deals with local heavyweights to ensure her safe passage.  She may come from a rather masculine culture, but Makina is all too adept at looking after herself, as a boy who gets too close finds out:

Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so he’d know that her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist; it took her one second.  The adventurer fell to his knees in pain, jammed into the tight space between his seat and the one in front, and opened his mouth to scream, but before the order reached his brain Makina had already insisted, finger to lips, shhhh, eh; she let him get used to the idea that a woman had jacked him up and then whispered, leaning close, I don’t like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it.
(And Other Stories, 2015)

In a second she disables her would-be assailant, not needing to raise her voice above a whisper.  In fact, she rarely feels the need to talk at all in the course of her travels, moving serenely on in her quest to find her brother.

Signs… is primarily a tale of a traveller in a strange land, with Makina’s quest taking her into unknown territory where she must look for clues, and decide who to trust, to help her reach her goal.  Yet her main issue is actually making sure she comes back herself, as herself, with the main danger that of being altered by the journey:

She’s already arranged for her crossing and how to find her brother, now she had to make sure there would be someone to help her back; she didn’t want to stay there, nor have to endure what had happened to a friend who stayed away too long, maybe a day too long or an hour too long, at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters were no longer his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.

With the knowledge of this potential threat, the young woman keeps her eyes on the road ahead, focused on getting in and then out without becoming involved in a place that doesn’t concern her.  There’s a palpable sense of Orpheus in the Underworld here, and it turns out that the book is actually inspired by Aztec stories of the underworld, with the nine chapters reflecting the levels of the afterlife.  Makina is acutely aware of this, her role as a visitor, not just from another country, but from another realm…

It’s clear from the start that if we were trying to locate the story in the real world, there are obvious parallels with the Mexico-US border crossing, but Herrera is deliberately vague in describing the setting.  Names of towns or countries are never mentioned, meaning it could be any crossing, anywhere.  This adds to the dreamlike, almost allegorical, nature of the work, leaving us with a detached narration with little emotion.  In fact, the only time Makina does show interest is when she hears the language the people speak on the streets of the new country:

And then they speak.  They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

She is fascinated by the mingling of languages, the blend of tongues, a sense of a new identity being forged.  This is perhaps the most dangerous time for her as she begins to see how people from her realm can be persuaded to stay in this one.

In Lisa Dillman’s excellent afterword, the translator discusses some of Herrera’s use of slightly strange language and her need to reflect that in the English version.  The writer chose some deliberately obscure (at times, virtually invented) vocabulary, giving Dillman a few headaches as she attempted to do the same in English, hopefully with the same effect.  She also talks of her reading for the project, primarily to help with the theme and tone, but also to learn more about Aztec mythology, Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Alice in Wonderland.  All of these elements can be recognised in the finished product, and she has to be applauded for being able to recreate this aura hanging over the story, presenting the Anglophone reader with a short work with almost mythical qualities.

Much has been said here about the deceptively dangerous nature of the journey, and for me this is the underlying theme of the novel.  If we take Signs… as a look at the dangers of cultural assimilation (and that’s as good an angle as any to take), it can be read as a warning about losing contact with the culture that makes you who you are.  This is perhaps best shown in a short exchange Makina has with an old man on the other side:

Do you like it?  Tsk, me, I’m just passing through.  How long you been here?  Going on fifty years…

Getting in is easy – getting out is another matter entirely…

Interested?  Well, let me tempt you a little more…  On the Two Lines Press website, there’s a link to a podcast of a talk from last year about the book, with Yuri Herrera and Daniel Alarcón in conversation at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco.  It gives you a great idea of the style of the book, and the ideas behind it – if you’re still not sure after listening to this, then Signs… is probably not for you😉

April 2016 Wrap-Up

April saw lots happening in the world of fiction in translation.  The Man Booker 2b3a5-aprilInternational Prize, the Best Translated Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award all announced their shortlists (each of which raised a few eyebrows…).  Busy times are ahead for the respective juries, but having finished all my MBIP Shadow Panel reading, I can relax a little more now, with just a bit of rereading and some light, civilised discussion on the agenda before we need to discuss our winner:)

In the meantime, the reading and reviewing just keeps on keeping on – let’s see what happened last month, in words and numbers:)

Total Books Read: 17
Year-to-Date: 62

New: 12
Rereads: 5

From the Shelves: 4
Review Copies: 6
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 6 (4 review copies)

Novels: 8
Novellas: 4
Short Stories: 4
Non-Fiction: 0
Poetry: 1

Non-English Language: 15
(5 Spanish, 5 Korean, Turkish, German, Swedish, Indonesian, Norwegian)
In Original Language: 1 (German)

Books Reviewed in April were:
1) Weit über das Land (Far across the Land) by Peter Stamm
2) Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
3) A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk
4) Ein ganzes Leben / A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
5) On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration
6) Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare
7) Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard
8) The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

Tony’s Turkey for April is: Nothing

Nothing to see here – please come back next month:)

Tony’s Recommendation for April is:
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall

In all honesty, I’d say this was a pretty ordinary month in terms of what I reviewed, with nothing here really likely to feature in my annual awards.  However, much as I can struggle with NDiaye’s work, Ladivine is undeniably an excellent novel (even if the official MBIP judges somehow managed to miss that fact…).  Hold the press – Knausi’s latest tale of woe really hit the spot, and having rushed the review forward, I’ve decided that it’s worthy of top spot for this month (apologies to Ms. NDiaye…).

May will see winners announced on both sides of the Atlantic (here’s hoping the judges choose something exciting and not a compromise…), but for me it will mostly be a month of hard work (at my day job), so don’t expect too many wonders here on the blog.  Still, I might have time for a surprise or too, so don’t go too far away:)

‘The Helios Disaster’ by Linda Boström Knausgård (Review)

IMG_5434It’s always welcome when another intrepid publisher appears in the world of fiction in translation, and today’s review sees my first encounter with one of those brave presses, World Editions.  The book itself is a short, powerful novella, one which hasn’t got the press it deserves as far as I can tell – surprising, considering the bearded Norwegian elephant lurking in the corner of the room.  But I digress…

Linda Boström Knausgård’s The Helios Disaster (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with a bang, a story born of blood:

I am born of a father.  I split his head.  For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye.  You are my father, I tell him with my eyes.  My father.  The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father,  His woollen socks suck it up greedily and turn red.  The blood sinks into the worn wooden floor and I think, his eyes are green like mine.
p.9 (World Editions, 2015)

A modern Athena, born from the head of her father, the girl emerges as a twelve-year-old, fully-clad in armour, before shedding her clothes and heading off into the Swedish snow (wearing only a helmet).  She is found by a neighbour and taken to the authorities, eventually ending up fostered out to a family.

After such a dramatic start, there’s little chance of Anna, as she is called by her new carers, settling down to a quiet life.  With no memory of anything before the vivid scene which brought her into the world, she must learn to adapt to an ordinary life in the midst of a nice, God-fearing family – which makes the sudden discovery of her ability to speak in tongues even more disturbing.  As those around her start to believe in miracles, Anna herself just longs to be reunited with Conrad, her father, who perhaps holds the key to her true origins…

The Helios Disaster is a story in two parts, the first taking us from Anna’s dramatic ‘birth’ up to an emotional evening in her local church, with the second describing the aftermath of her emotional breakdown.  It’s a book which needs to be read in full before you get a true sense of what is happening, and even then there’s a sense that the writer is playing with the reader a little, never truly revealing how much of the story is real and how much the product of a disturbed mind.

You’d expect the foster family to be the calming influence of the story, but even here there’s a feeling that everything is slightly off-kilter.  Birgitta and Sven, and their sons Ulf and Urban, welcome Anna into their home, introducing her to a life of temperance and churchgoing.  It’s all rather sanitised, smacking of a Stepford-wives sort of existence, and it’s unsurprising that the kids rebel (albeit in a very civilised Swedish manner, with their parents’ tacit consent).

Anna herself is far more disturbing, though.  While she arrives able to talk, think, and reason, there are certain gaps in her character, particularly in her ability to interact with others:

‘You’re a beautiful girl, you know.  And with beauty comes certain privileges.’
Privileges? I thought.  And I devoured the word from beginning to end.
‘Yes, advantages.  It’s easy to be liked.  Even if you have to make an effort.’
Make an effort, I thought, wiping my mouth with my napkin. (pp.24/5)

At times she can appear robotic, puzzling over words, acquiring meaning from the new input surrounding her.  Certainly, she’s a hard person to warm to.

Of course, there may be a reason for this.  As the book progresses, there’s an increasing sense that we’re being played, the writer using the first-person point-of-view to hide her true intentions, with the reader unable to fully trust Anna’s view of the world.  She’s definitely a girl with issues, but this mythical birth (or rebirth) may be hiding something far more sinister.  We suspect that her desire to reunite with her father, fuelled by the letters they exchange, might not be such a good idea…

Much of this is supported by the writing itself.  Boström Knausgård begins with fairly sparse, spiky language, reflecting Anna’s tabula rasa state, which develops into far more elaborate, emotional writing as the story progresses.  Gradually, Anna comes out of her emotional shell, releasing her feelings by screaming into the snow, until her hidden talent is finally revealed:

The words gushed forth; there was no beginning and no end to the words; they hung together and played with each other, drawing themselves out and pushing back inside my mouth.  The whole church was full of them; they roared and rushed like the river, I thought, and it was as if I were viewing them from a  distance and as if I could see how they played with one another.  Biting one another and pushing away.  Never before had I felt the way I did now, with the church full of words that came out of me, from the deepest parts of me. (p.42)

All credit to Willson-Broyles for her handling of this range of tones and styles, capturing the shift from the unemotional to passionate that Anna undergoes.  While the story is intriguing, it’s the writing that really makes The Helios Disaster worth seeking out.

So, who is this writer, and why does the name sound so familiar?  As many of you will no doubt have guessed, Boström Knausgård is married to Karl Ove Knausgaard, and while I wouldn’t normally focus on a writer’s hubby, there are several reasons to bring that up here.  She is one of the major focuses of My Struggle 2: A Man in Love, and her character is sketched out there, with Knausi depicting his wife as a sensitive poet struggling with mental illness.  Having read that book, it was impossible to ignore that information, particularly when the second half of the book took a dramatic, slightly unexpected twist.

All this merely adds to the interest of an already intriguing book, one which (to offer a comparison I hope will encourage people further) could have come straight out of the Peirene Press stable of novellas.  There’s lots I could add here, but won’t for fear of affecting your enjoyment of the book, as part of its success is in making the reader question what they are told.  Whether it’s a matter of myth or mental delusion is fairly unimportant – The Helios Disaster makes for a wonderful introduction to World Editions, and I hope I can find the time to try more of their offerings soon:)

‘Some Rain Must Fall’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

IMG_5438While one of the major multi-volume literary novels of recent years (Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels) has finally come to its conclusion, the other is still going strong, even if an end is in sight.  The first four parts of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle epic have already appeared in English, and the fifth has just joined them, allowing us to resume our journey through the bearded wonder’s early life.  As the title suggests, there may be trouble ahead – rest assured Knausi will tell us about it, not missing a single detail😉

Some Rain Must Fall (translated by Don Bartlett, published by Harvill Secker) takes up where Dancing in the Dark left off.  Having finished his year of ‘teaching’, young Karl Ove moves up to Bergen where he is to spend a year at the prestigious Writing Academy. His brother Ingve’s presence there means settling in is fairly smooth, and with people to drink with, the start of his writing career in plain view and the beautiful Ingvild (a young woman he’s been exchanging letters with all summer) soon to arrive in Bergen, life seems pretty good.

However, the series isn’t called My Struggle for nothing, and the fifth volume is just as full of Knausi’s problems as its predecessors. The relationship with Ingvild, predictably, never gets off the ground (even if the reasons for this are not what you’d imagine); despite the constant parties, Karl Ove struggles to reveal his true nature to most of the people he meets, his shyness when sober turning to psychotic episodes when drunk; as for his writing course, well, it’s not too long before he realises that he is a lot further from being a published writer than he could have imagined. The truth is that he’s in way over his head, a little boy playing at being a grown-up author…

The latest translation of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel to appear in English is another extensive slice of Norwegian angst.  Some Rain Must Fall (a pun alluding both to the ‘suffering’ the writer undergoes and the almost constant precipitation in Bergen, the town he spends a large chunk of his life in) takes us from the end of Dancing in the Dark, and through some of the events of A Death in the Family, before ending with the writer’s flight to Sweden, the event which begins the period covered in A Man in Love. This one is a novel in two parts, the first focusing on Knausgaard’s year at the Writing Academy, before the second takes us briskly through more than a decade in the writer’s life, examining his gradual, painstaking route to publication, via part-time jobs, wrecked relationships and psychosis.

We meet Karl Ove again on his way to the Writing Academy, his usual deluded self, a boy in a train on his way to his big break:

Otherwise I sat in my seat smoking and drinking coffee, reading newspapers but no books, on the basis that it might affect my prose, that I might lose whatever it was that had got me into the Writing Academy.
p.14 (Harvill Secker, 2016)

This cocky demeanour doesn’t last too long. On his arrival at the academy, he finds he is one of eight writers, the others all older (some much older), with a couple already having had work published. One of his teachers is Norwegian writer Jon Fosse (a fairly well-known name, even in our world of fiction in translation), and it soon dawns on our hapless hero that he’s completely out of his depth:

Even when I really concentrated and read as slowly as I could, several pages at a time, I didn’t understand. I understood as good as all the words, that wasn’t the problem, and I also understood the sentences, as such, but I didn’t understand what they meant. I had no idea. And that took the wind out of my sails because I knew of course that there was a reason we had been given these two particular books. They were regarded as good literature, as having importance, and I didn’t understand them. (p.65)

Humiliated in classes and unable to write at home, poor Karl Ove realises that he’s unlikely to be able to live up to his reputation as a literary Wunderkind.

In fact, in the second half of the book the opposite occurs. Knausgaard makes friends with a couple of younger students, more intelligent and better read than him, who then go on to become published writers while he is still struggling to put a few pages together. Stung at the prospect of being left behind, he gradually starts to get a toehold in the literary world. It begins with reviews for magazines and newspapers, essays he writes both for courses and for himself. When he does manage to put together a story, he has occasional success, with several being included in anthologies. None of this comes easily, and the reader gets to see his first works slowly come together from painstakingly generated fragments.

As much as Some Rain Must Fall is about the man and his writing, though, another major focus is on his (mis)adventures with the opposite sex. Young and good-looking, 192cm (6’ 4”) tall – throw in a dark and brooding nature, and you have a Nordic Heathcliff, a man who can’t help but stand out from the crowd, no matter how infrequently he opens his mouth. Yet while he has no trouble attracting women, taking to them is another story:

We stayed there for almost an hour, it was torture, neither of us managed to get a grip on the situation, it was as if it existed independently of us, something much bigger and heavier than we could handle. When I said anything it was tentative, and every time it was the tentativeness, not what was said, that prevailed. (p.107)

After his early setback with Ingvild, he manages to involve himself in a string of relationships and escapades, the bright, cheery Gunvor and the sophisticated Tonje being the women he spends most time with. As easy as he finds it to get together with these women, though, the emptiness inside him prevents him from making it work. He wants a stable relationship, but his destructive personality means he deliberately sabotages what he has, always looking for ways out (but too afraid to sever the ties himself…).

Particularly in the first part of the book, there’s a palpable sense of novelty, with everything seeming new, and so important. Anyone who went to university away from home will recognise the enthusiasm Karl Ove has for his new life, and the mix of excitement and trepidation he’s almost drowning in. However, one of the effects of this enthusiasm on the book is that every event is given exaggerated importance. Every woman is the girl of his dreams, every setback is the end of his writing career, and the reader feels his anguish in the writer’s words, even twenty years after the fact. Yet twenty pages later all is forgotten, with new girls coming along and fresh literary embarrassments just around the corner (which can be rather annoying for the reviewer trying to put their finger on the main events of the novel!).

Because of this, there are times when Some Rain Must Fall feels like a simple page-turner. It may be entertaining to read, compelling in a train-wreck sort of way, but the writing isn’t always that impressive, at times trite, even. On reflection, though, there’s a sense that this is largely deliberate, the mature writer allowing himself to regress to this stage in his life, choosing a style that suits the Karl Ove of the time. Certainly the style (to me, at least) appears to improve as the book progresses, the later parts more complex, more introverted, reflecting the development in Knausgaard’s abilities as he returns to university and attempts to make up for lost time.

There was also something panicked about my desire to acquire knowledge, in sudden terrible insights I saw that actually I didn’t know anything and it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. (p.278)

It’s now that we see the real writer emerge, reading voraciously and becoming obsessed with his self-education.

Part of the charm of this episode of Knausgaard’s life is also the contrast between the good and bad sides of his character (Karl Ove Jekyll and Knausi Hyde), with the sinister alter-ego always only a few bottles of wine away. He’s a man who accepts people for who they are, loves to discuss poetry, works hard, cares for his grandmother, always living in the shadow of Ingve and his absent father. He’s also the man who, when drunk, sleeps around when he gets the chance, attacks his brother and rages through the night, waking up under bushes, in hallways, horrified the next day by memories of what he said and did. Early on he’s every bit as immature and clueless as he was in Dancing in the Dark, but what makes Some Rain Must Fall stand out from what was easily the weakest book in the series is his growing realisation of the fact and the increasingly pathetic and inexcusable nature of his actions. What’s funny when you’re nineteen is sad when you’re pushing thirty, and Karl Ove realises this better than anyone, terrified of ending up a pitiful, lonely has-been (he only has to look at his family for a glimpse of a possible future…).

With Some Rain Must Fall being an integral part of the My Struggle project, it could be a difficult work to try as a stand-alone book. At first, I thought it might be entertaining enough read in isolation, but the more I tried, the more I realised the depth the earlier parts lend to this one. For the new reader, the mention of his grandma’s house will go unnoticed, which will not be the case for anyone who has read the seventy-page cleaning section of A Death in the Family. Readers of Boyhood Island will feel much more sympathy for Karl Ove when he struggles to cope with simple interactions with his father. Those who managed to get through Dancing in the Dark will recognise the driving force of Knausgaard’s first novel, a man running away from the temptation of a young girl’s love. As for his jealousy, and what happens when he sees Ingve and Tonje flirting, well, A Man in Love shows just how far that can lead…

One of the features of my other My Struggle reviews is the way in which I continually stumbled upon creepy parallels between Knausgaard’s experiences and my own, and Some Rain May Fall, set mainly during my high-school and university days, intersects with my own life more than ever. Quite apart from the superficial similarities in taste (mentions of Supergrass on the radio, going to an Elastica concert), there are more serious, unsettling traits I share. Sunday morning, around 11 a.m. – I’m having a shower, thinking about this review as the water pours down, the structure slowly coalescing in my mind. As I finish, I’m desperate to dry off, get dressed and run to the computer to get it all down before it vanishes into the ether. In the front room my daughters are playing Monopoly, in the study my wife is idly surfing the net. They’re all going out at 12.30, leaving me with the house to myself for the day, but I want the computer now. As I pace around the kitchen, waiting for my wife to get up, all I can think of is Knausi fuming in the corridor when Tonje needs to do something for work, scowling in a chair, robbed of his rightful place, his routine affected. This is why, despite some of the faults (the dull sections, the banal conversation), I keep turning the pages. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing…

I had my doubts at times that this one would manage to live up to the heights of the first two in the series, and early on it certainly didn’t seem that way. However, by the end Knausgaard had me hooked – it took me five days to read the 663 pages of my version, and I knocked off the last two-hundred pages on that fifth day. You can’t help but be swept along by the sheer energy and honesty of his writing, the way he lays bare his emotions and his honest description of the joy of being young and in love… I can’t wait for the sixth and final instalment of My Struggle, even if I have no idea how he’ll manage to finish the book off (surely we know everything there is to know about him by now?).

Anyway, I’d better stop there – my wife is calling me, and she does not sound happy…

Shakespeare and Me

440px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Today, as you’re probably aware, marks the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and while celebrating someone’s demise might seem a little off, I thought it would be nice to mark the day in some fashion.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to read and review a play, but instead this week I’ve already looked at some modern-day sonnets and some fiction inspired by both Will and his contemporary, Cervantes.  My final contribution to the whole affair takes a somewhat different approach, though, a personal reflection on my connection with the bard.  This is Tony’s Reading List’s life with Shakespeare – enjoy:)

To begin with, it might surprise you to know that Will and I are neighbours (well, sort of).  Shakespeare grew up in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is a short drive from my hometown, Coventry.  Surprisingly, then, I’ve only ever been there once.  When I came back to England from Japan for a short visit, my mum took my wife (girlfriend at the time) and me there, where we did the touristy thing and wandered through all the old houses.  Sadly, we never made it to an actual performance – maybe next time…

My first experience with Shakespeare came much earlier, however.  Like most Britons, I was exposed to Shakespeare at secondary school, even if earlier generations would have had to study far more of his work.  The only play we read in my English class was Romeo and Juliet, which I remember very well for a couple of reasons.  One (and many of you might share this memory) was watching the Franco Zeffirelli film version of the play, notable for teenage boys mainly because of the very brief glimpse of nudity.  The other was a piece I submitted for my GCSE English coursework, a newspaper report on the sword fight resulting in Romeo’s banishment from Verona (ace reporter Antonio Malonio was on the scene…).

Of course, a few years later another director had a go at adapting Romeo and Julio for the big screen, and I eventually ended up seeing the Baz Luhrman version in Germany.  I was living there at the time, working as a language assistant at a high school, and on a rainy day in Cologne I sought refuge in a cinema along with an ex-girlfriend.  I had studied German at school and university and had been living in the country for a few months – she had no German but a Master of Arts in the area of English literature.  Guess who understood the film better…

While it’s hardly part of the canon, I also have fond memories of a trip to London to see a show dubbed as presenting Shakespeare’s forgotten rock and roll masterpiece, Return to the Forbidden Planet (a loose sci-fi adaptation of The Tempest).  With the help of songs like ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’, the play brought Shakespeare to another generation, mixing up pop music and theatre, and even playing with the Bard’s other works.  One line I remember well is ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Gloria and her Prospero‘ – yep, another nod to Romeo and Juliet😉

Now I’m an English teacher of sorts, helping prepare overseas students for the trials to come at a major Australian university, and while I’ve never managed to convince them that they need to devote some time to Macbeth or Hamlet, I have sneaked Shakespeare into the classroom on a few occasions.  It’s usually in the form of a lesson on Sonnet XVIII (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’), which has worked surprisingly well every time I’ve taught it.  In addition to scaring the students with seventeenth-century pronouns, I often use it as a gap-fill listening (there are plenty of versions available on Youtube).  When I actually let the students see the video, after we had finished checking the answers, the girls suddenly got a lot more interested in the lesson – well, it was read by Tom Hiddleston, after all:)

There you go – just a few little anecdotes sharing some of my experiences with Shakespeare and his work.  For someone who never really thinks of himself as having a strong background in this area (there’s only one Shakespeare review – King Lear – on the blog so far), it was surprisingly easy to find something to talk about – which just shows how towering a figure Will still is today.  That’s enough from me, though – how about you?  I’d love to hear about your connection to the Bard:)

‘Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare’ (Review)

IMG_5437After my recent dalliance with poetry, it’s time to return to fiction, but don’t think that means I’ve left the Shakespeare celebrations behind.  Today sees another book commissioned to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Bard of Avon, one which takes advantage of a historical coincidence to introduce Anglophone readers to some Spanish-language stories.  Two for the price of one?  Now that sounds like something I might enjoy:)

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare does exactly what it says on the cover.  Those wonderful people over at And Other Stories, in conjunction with the Hay Festival, have taken advantage of the fact that Shakespeare died on the same date (if not the same day…) as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to commission stories from twelve authors to commemorate the two literary legends.  Six English-language writers have taken on the task of producing a story inspired by the creator of Don Quixote, while six of their Spanish-language counterparts tackled the job of coming up with a Shakespeare-inspired tale.  Of course, this entailed the need for a translator or two, and editors Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia have put together a fine team of twelve (six for the Spanish-language version and another half a dozen, familiar faces all, for the edition I read) for the occasion.  Throw in an introduction by Salman Rushdie, and it all makes for an enticing proposition.

Cervantes’ body of work is, of course, dominated by his story of the man of La Mancha, so it’s little surprise that most of the stories in English take that as their starting point.  Ben Okri kicks off the collection with ‘Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading’, in which a scene alluded to in the book, set in a printer’s workshop, is relocated to Nigeria:

Afterwards all one heard of him were legends.  He had waged battles with corrupt government officials, and embarked on campaigns in the forests of the North where Boko Haram terrorised the nation.  It was even rumoured that he had been selected to join a resettlement programme on Mars.  These are stories his madness generated.  It is hard to say whether his deeds exceeded our imagination, or whether we are poor reporters of the marvellous.
‘Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading’, pp.16/7 (And Other Stories, 2016)

This (meta)fictional encounter, in which a print worker narrates his impressions of the great man, introduces us nicely to the style of the stories in the collection.

Other writers take a more tangential approach to Cervantes’ major work while also taking the story on the road.  Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Mir Aslam of Kolachi’ is set in Pakistan and features an ageing storyteller with a desire to travel abroad, a man whose tilting at bureaucratic windmills can only be described as Quixotic.  Hisham Matar’s ‘The Piano Bar’ instead takes us to Egypt, where a returning ex-pat, carrying a copy of Don Quixote into a bar, is sucked into stories of the past when he encounters a couple of familiar faces.

By contrast, the Spanish-language writers have chosen a far wider range of inspirations for their pieces.  In Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s ‘The Dogs of War’ (translated by Anne McLean), a class on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar evokes memories of an assassination far closer to home.  The story switches between the lecturer preparing his notes and the deadly cat-and-mouse game Pablo Escobar plays with his enemies.  An excellent, taut tale, it manages to tie the two strands together unexpectedly on its last page.

Yuri Herrera attempts a similar feat with ‘Coriolanus’ (tr. Lisa Dillman), with the action, and characters transported to Mexico, without ever quite hitting the mark, but Marcos Giralt Torrente’s ‘Opening Windows’ (tr. Samantha Schnee) was far more to my taste.  A widower with a striking daughter, having moved recently to a new town, attends a local festival at which his nephew unexpectedly appears on stage in a piece featuring adultery.  As the narrator looks around at the young people enjoying themselves, he muses:

We often cling to our past selves, not allowing new things a fair chance.  Which goals replace outdated ones?  What ideals do we keep when we discard old ones?  When you look at it this way, the passage of time is terrifying, because, as we gradually let go of our baggage, we grow further and further from ourselves.
‘Opening Windows’, p.100

An excellent, melancholy story, ‘Opening Windows’, takes a much calmer look at one of the Bard’s more famous plays.  Which one?  Well, that would be telling😉

Where the stories above are closely linked to the original play, some focus a little more on the new characters.  In ‘The Secret Life of Shakespeareans’ (tr. Rosalind Harvey), Soledad Puértolas has her writer narrator become involved in his sister’s stories and dramas, bumping into one of her old boyfriends and wondering just what to make of all the symbolism he finds in their anecdotes.  While this is a rather modern affair, Vicente Molina Foix takes a different approach, setting his piece, ‘Egyptian Puppet’ (tr. Frank Wynne) in Elizabethan London, complete with visits to the Globe Theatre:)

Several of the Anglophone writers also had a different take on their task.  Nell Leyshon’s ‘Glass’, a story of a shy teenaged girl’s sexual awakening, is inspired by Cervantes’ novel The Glass Graduate, with the protagonist convinced her body has turned into glass, leaving her afraid to move lest she be shattered into pieces.  However, for me, Deborah Levy does this more successfully in ‘The Glass Woman’, set in nineteenth-century Bavaria, in which a famed physician does his best to cure a princess of her glass-related delusion…

If you’re going to take inspiration from the classics, though, you might as well let your imagination run wild, and two of my favourite stories in the collection have certainly taken that advice to heart.  Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Shakespeare, New Mexico’ (tr. Christina MacSweeney) follows a Mexican family living in the US as they relocate to a historic ghost town, employed to act in a Wild-West-era never-ending show.  Although it starts slowly, by the end the story cleverly weaves in comments on contemporary issues, such as migration and gun control, all the while developing the character of the mother of the family, a modern-day Lady Macbeth if ever there was one.

For sheer lunacy, though, I have to take my hat off to Rhidian Brook and his (hopefully wholly imaginary) ‘The Anthology Massacre’.  Another story inspired by Don Quixote, this one takes a unique approach, focusing on a writer who dreams of fame and fortune after producing a lengthy novel, one retelling Cervantes’ work in the voice of Rocinante, the good knight’s horse.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in London:

Yes, this country’s ‘twelve finest writers’ are tonight congratulating themselves on the launch of their dubiously conceived and pretentiously named ‘The Anthology’, a collection of short stories celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Cervantes, who will no doubt be turning in his recently located unmarked grave.
‘The Anthology Massacre’, p.194

Twelve pompous authors (among whom Brook himself is numbered), one jealous wannabe – what could possibly go wrong?  I’ll leave you to find out😉

An excellent idea and one that has been carried out successfully, Lunatics, Lovers and Poets is the perfect way to celebrate two undisputed giants of literature.  Perhaps more importantly, the hybrid nature of the inspiration means readers are likely to be introduced to some exciting new names.  For me, it was an opportunity to try writers such as Shamsie, Brook and Levy; for most, it’ll be a first visit to the world of Giralt Torrente, Herrera and Lusielli.  No matter which side of that divide you find yourself on, though, I’m sure that the stories featured here will spur you on to seek out more of those writers’ works, which can only be a good thing:)

‘On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration’ (Review)

IMG_5415Saturday marks the quatercentary of Shakespeare’s death, and while I rarely get involved with anything outside the world of fiction in translation these days, there are some events even I can’t ignore.  In fact, today’s post marks an even greater shift away from my usual fare, with my review wandering into an area I’m rather unfamiliar with.  Thanks to a review copy I was recently offered, it’s time for some poetry on the blog, both new and old, celebrating old Will and his way with words…

For me, Shakespeare has always been, first and foremost, a playwright, but he’s also one of the English language’s most famous poets, with his collection of sonnets proving his predictions of eternal fame right.  An apt way to commemorate the anniversary of his death (and celebrate his birthday…), then, might be to revisit some of these, and that’s exactly what Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare have done with the collection On Shakespeare’s Sonnets – A Poets’ Celebration (my copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia).  A beautiful, slim hardback book, the collection contains a selection of the sonnets along with responses from a number of contemporary English-language poets, among them some of the biggest names in the field (or so I am assured!).

With thirty modern poets featured, there’s a lot of variety to enjoy among the responses to Shakespeare’s original pieces.  The original and its response are mostly set face-to-face, allowing the reader to compare the two easily and see the inspiration.  Some of the modern poets have taken the task seriously, attempting to use the traditional sonnet form and adhere to a similar tone: examples of this approach include Imtias Dharker’s take on Sonnet 43, ‘The Trick’, which plays with images of light,dark and shadow, as well as Gillian Clark’s ‘Magnetism’ (116), a poem of longing for an absent loved one.

Then again, some efforts are slightly more light-hearted about the whole affair.  Douglas Dunn’s ‘Senex on Market Street’, seems to mock Sonnet 1’s ardour with its opening line:

Posh totty totters past on serious heels. (p.3)

While it does have a more serious side, it’s certainly a more modern take on the poet writing of a beautiful woman…  Another in this vein is Nick Laird’s ‘After Sonnet 38’, calling on ‘the sonneteers, our fabulous liars’ (p.27) to get their MacBook Airs out and start writing the praises of the woman he admires.

While several of the poets attempt to use the sonnet form, many prefer to break free of these constraints to express their own version of the poems.  Fiona Sampson’s ‘Drowned Man’ (143) consists of six short four-line verses describing a couple’s dreamy movements in bed:

Look how they sleep first he turns
away and then she turns
after him or now she turns
her back and he follows (p.67)

Andrew Motion’s ‘Rhapsodies’ keep the form without the rhymes, wandering across lines and including short questions and phrases within them.  His take on Sonnet 12 is a nice one, playing on the idea of time passing in the first line with one of his own:

The clocks change, and suddenly there’s the shock
of walking home in darkness (p.7)

Obviously, the end of daylight saving is enough to drive even poets to distraction…

Interestingly enough, despite having a wealth of sonnets to choose from, it’s not uncommon for two, or even three, of the modern poets to have opted for the same one, allowing different views of the same poem.  One example of this is Sonnet 60, with Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘Time’s Fool’ using nine non-rhyming couplets to examine the wave metaphor of the original.  For me, though, Ruth Padel’s ‘Your Life as a Wave’ does it better, starting with the original wave moving inexorably towards the shore, but then turning the idea on its head:

Let’s reverse the metaphor, say you were born
here where the tide comes in, with seeds
of what you may become concealed in bladder-wrack
like the carbon star in a trapiche emerald. (pp.36/7)

A clever take on the original, it’s this reworking of the original ideas of the sonnet which often makes for the best attempts in the collection.

At the end of the book there are short biographies of all the contributors, and the additional notes which some of the poets have offered can be extremely enlightening.  Bernard O’Donoghue, for example, points out how his response to Sonnet 49, ‘At the Hallé’, attempts to mirror what he sees as the passive-aggressive undertones of the original.  John Burnside explains how he approached Sonnet 71 for his version, ‘Still Life’, seizing upon one minor detail from the original poem and then expanding upon it (which I would never have realised otherwise!).  Then there’s Jo Shapcott’s ‘2014/15’, which, as she says, uses one word from each line of the original to inspire it, even if the end result is rather different.

If I’m completely honest (and I do my best to be, when it suits me), poetry is not really my thing, but this collection is excellent, a fun introduction to both modern poetry and Shakespeare’s classics.  Part of the charm is the chance to read some of the original sonnets, of course, but it’s perhaps more interesting to see how they’ve been adapted.  I didn’t love all of them, but most (with the exception of Simon Armitage’s dull, morse-code-inspired ‘Di-Di-Dah-Dah-Di-Dit’…) can be enjoyed even by those with little interest in the genre.

Of course, we all have favourites, and I’m no exception.  While I quite liked Padel’s effort, there was one clear stand-out.  Sonnet 36 begins:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one; (p.24)

However Don Paterson’s ‘Two’ doesn’t see it that way at all:

These two, if two, can only half-exist,
their being so lost, so inwardly inclined
that were somehow the universal mind
to make its inventory, they would be missed, (p.25)

A beautiful poem on two becoming one and forgetting the outside world, this was the one that grabbed my attention from the beginning and the one I kept coming back to, with a great start and an even better finish.  Paterson’s lovers have no time for the outside world, and even sleep seems a luxury they can’t afford:

Sleep will halve them so they will not sleep.

Not for you?  Well, we all have our idea of what poetry should be.  Perhaps you should try the book for yourself and tell us about your favourite; I’m sure you’ll find something that will hit the spot:)

Man Booker International Prize 2016 – The Official Shortlist

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkEvery year as I waited for the official IFFP shortlist to be announced, I thought “surely this year the judges will have a similar list to ours”, and every year, without fail, I was surprised, dumbfounded and (frequently) disappointed.  This year, though, with the shift to the Man Booker International Prize, and the same names coming up again and again in online discussions, I was more convinced than ever, allowing myself to believe that this year, this time, the judges’ shortlist would be close to ours.

Yeah, didn’t happen😉

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) & Daniel Hahn
A General Theory of Oblivion 
(Harvill Secker)

Elena Ferrante (Italy) & Ann Goldstein
The Story of the Lost Child
 (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) & Deborah Smith
The Vegetarian 
(Portobello Books)

Yan Lianke (China) & Carlos Rojas
The Four Books
 (Chatto & Windus)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) & Ekin Oklap
A Strangeness in My Mind 
(Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) & Charlotte Collins
A Whole Life

It’s safe to say that we didn’t see that coming…

In fairness, our list has three books in common with the official one, which is just about par for the course (from memory, the overlap has always ranged between two and four out of six).  The inclusion of A Whole Life isn’t a huge surprise either – earlier this week I wrote:

I’d say that this might be a dark horse for the shortlist as it’s the kind of book that goes down well with judges – short, uncomplicated and an interesting look at a man and his life.

So that’s one thing I got right😉

The inclusion of the other two outliers, though, was far more surprising.  A Strangeness in My Mind and A General Theory of Oblivion are very similar books in that they are pleasant reads but leave little behind in your mind once you’ve finished them, and it’s not giving too much away to say that neither of them were ever really in consideration for the shadow shortlist (and, yes, we did have enough people get through the massive Pamuk novel to be able to judge it fairly…).

It’s not so much the inclusion of these two that is so surprising, though (they’re both enjoyable books I was happy to have discovered), but what was subsequently left out.  Death by Water was one of my personal favourites, but not everyone shares my love of J-Lit, so its omission is not a major shock.  Tram 83, on the other hand, was one I felt sure would make the selection.  Quoting myself again, on A General Theory of Oblivion:

It will have its backers, but it may well suffer in comparison with the other African book on the longlist, Tram 83.  Yes, that sounds crude and cynical, but that’s often the way these things work, and if there’s only room for one African book on the shortlist, A General Theory of Oblivion is likely to be the one to miss out.

OK, so I’m not *always* right😉

However the biggest oversight (if that’s what we can call it) is the failure to choose either of the French novels from MacLehose Press for the shortlist.  Mend the Living and Ladivine are books which have impressed most who have tried them – in fact, my only concern (to quote myself again) was whether there was room for both.  From my review of Mend the Living:

Two books by French writers, both women, both from the same publisher – is there room for both on the shortlist, or will the judges decide that one is enough and give someone else a chance?

I think I should just stop this quoting business while I’m behind😦

I could make some spiteful comments here (about how, for example, the MBIP seems to be following the IFFP’s footsteps in favouring nice, readable books over experimental works), but instead I’m going to look on the bright side and give the judges the benefit of the doubt.  If anything, I’d say it strengthens the chances of the three books both panels picked, which is good news for Han Kang, Yan Lianke and the mysterious Elena Ferrante.  And of course, there is one last point to remember.  Ndiaye, de Kerangal and Oe are still in the running for the Shadow MBIP – from here, our path and that of the official panel must diverge.  Let’s see if those paths cross again when the winner is announced:)

Man Booker International Prize 2016 – The Shadow Panel Shortlist

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkIt’s been about five weeks since the announcement of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize longlist, ushering in one of the busiest periods of my blogging year.  Along with the rest of my intrepid colleagues on the Shadow Panel, I’ve been devoting much of my free time to reading the books, discussing them online and writing up reviews summarising, rating and slating them (it’s a hard life, this blogging business…).

Finally, though, it’s time to display the fruits of our labours, and the Shadow Panel is ready to hand down its verdict.  Here are the six books we’ve chosen to progress to the next stage (links are to my reviews) – your Shadow shortlist:)


Elena Ferrante (Italy) & Ann Goldstein
The Story of the Lost Child
 (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) & Deborah Smith
The Vegetarian 
(Portobello Books)

Maylis de Kerangal (France) & Jessica Moore
Mend the Living
 (MacLehose Press)

Yan Lianke (China) & Carlos Rojas
The Four Books
 (Chatto & Windus)

Marie NDiaye (France) & Jordan Stump
 (MacLehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) & Deborah Boliver Boehm
Death by Water
 (Atlantic Books)

I hope you’d all agree that this is a very strong shortlist, one of the best I can remember (in fact, I’d say the whole longlist had the best strength in depth I’ve seen in my five years of Shadowing), and there were several other books that might have made the cut on another day.  A special mention must go here to Tram 83, which very narrowly missed out on selection.

Once again, our team of amateur reviewers has done a sterling job of sourcing and reading the books in a short space of time.  Three of the eight judges managed to read the whole list, with most of the others not far behind.  Each book on the longlist was read by at least five of the judges, ensuring fair coverage, while three of the books had the attention of the whole panel:)

A few themes dominate this list.  The first is the success of East Asian books: one selection each from Japan, China and South Korea means this region provides half of the shortlist.  Another is the presence of two French novels, both published by MacLehose Press: French literature seems to be an area where MacLehose are particularly strong, and our shortlist merely confirms that.  The final area of note is the prevalence of female authors: all four of the longlisted titles by women made our cut.  You can finish this thought off yourselves😉

Once we’ve finished congratulating ourselves on a job well done, it’ll be time to get our noses back to the grindstone.  I’ll be rereading a few of our shortlisted titles (and flicking through others), ready for the discussions to decide the winner.  Without wanting to give away too many of our secrets, unlike last year, where if it hadn’t been for our addition of Zone to the longlist, The End of Days would have been an easy runaway winner, choosing the 2016 shadow winner will be no easy task, with each of the shortlisted books having someone to fight its corner.  Let’s hope it doesn’t get too bloody…

Of course, the real longlist will be announced at some point tomorrow, and we all have a keen interest in seeing what the official judges have made of their task.  We’ve laid our cards on the table – now let’s see what they’re holding😉

‘Ein ganzes Leben’ / ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler (Review – MBIP 2016, Number 13)

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkAfter a long and arduous trek taking us to Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, we finish our Man Booker International Prize journey today with one last trip.  We’re off to the mountains to see how a man has spent his life, one characterised by brief moments of happiness and a lot of suffering.  Wrap up – it’s *very* cold out there at times…

Ein ganzes Leben (A Whole Life) by Robert Seethaler
German edition from Goldmann Verlag
English-language edition from Picador, translated by Charlotte Collins

What’s it all about?
Andreas Egger arrives in a small mountain village as a young child after the death of his mother and is taken under the care (to use the word loosely) of his abusive uncle.  Although his time working on the farm leaves him with a limp, a souvenir of a particularly nasty beating, by the time he’s a teenager, he’s big and strong enough to set out on his own, making a living for himself through various forms of manual labour.  Eventually, he meets Marie, a newcomer to the village, and through this blossoming romance, Andreas appears to be headed towards a happily ever after.

However, life is destined to be rather unkind to poor Andreas, and he is soon to learn that however much you suffer, there’s always more pain just around the corner.  As the twentieth century rolls on, and technology and war intrude into the calm of the isolated village, we get to see how his life unfolds over decades.  Marriage, work, conflict, survival, death – a whole life, you might say.

A Whole Life is the kind of book where you could describe the whole plot, and (with a couple of exceptions) it really wouldn’t matter that much.  The novel is all about the telling of the story, the experience of accompanying the taciturn, rather grumpy, Andreas over the years, feeling the cold as he hangs from wires to clear icicles and breathing in the fresh air as he strolls through the Alpine meadows.  As literary tourism goes, this is certainly a book to savour.

One major focus of the book is on Andreas himself and his development from a boy escaping from a horrible upbringing into a shy young man finding his way in the world.  Seethaler takes his time sketching his protagonist out so that the reader can better understand him:

Er war stark, aber langsam.  Er dachte langsam, sprach langsam und ging langsam, doch jeder Gedanke, jedes Wort und jeder Schritt hinterließen ihre Spuren, und zwar genau da, wo solche Spuren seiner Meinung nach hingehörten.
p.30 (Goldmann, 2016)

He was strong, but slow.  He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be.
p.22 (Picador, 2015)

These qualities are respected by the people he meets (Marie, his employers, the tourists he later IMG_5426takes for rambles in the mountains), yet while he is confident in his abilities, he is never truly comfortable in the presence of others, preferring a more solitary existence.

As much as A Whole Life is about Andreas, though, Seethaler actually devotes much of his energy to showing how the village his character lives in develops.  This begins with the arrival of a group of men planning to start construction on a cable car route, the first in the region.  Andreas becomes swept up in this venture, throwing himself into the midst of the struggle between nature and progress, and enjoying it:

Seitdem vor wenigen Tagen die Blaue Liesl bei ihrer Probefahrt vorsichtig ruckelnd, jedoch ohne weitere Zwischenfälle zum ersten Mal emporgeschaukelt war, schienen die Berge etwas von ihrer ewiggültigen Mächtigkeit eingebüßt zu haben.  Und es würden noch weitere Bahnen folgen. (p.68)

Ever since the test ride a few days earlier, when Blue Liesl had wobbled her way to the top, juddering cautiously but without major mishap, the mountains seemed to have forfeited something of their enduring might.  And more cable cars would follow. (p.53)

Gradually, though, time (and the war) cause Andreas to fall behind the times.  The young man of the first part of the book, a pioneer in an assault on a new frontier, becomes a recluse hiding away from the increasingly important tourist industry and the new roads which stretch through the previously hidden village.

Seethaler tells his story in an even, flowing style, with little difference in his tone whether he’s describing a walk through the village, the horrors of war or an avalanche rumbling down the mountain.  Having read both the original and the English translation, I was able to compare the two, and for me Charlotte Collins has done an excellent job, even if (being completely honest) I did prefer the German.  Apart from a few vocabulary choices (in particular her liking for ‘bottom’ for the German ‘Hintern’, which is a little childish for my liking), nothing really stood out, and several passages flowed nicely.

What I preferred in the German was more intangible and would have been very difficult to bring across into English.  One example of this would be the name of the local inn, ‘Zum goldenen Gamser’, translated here as ‘The Golden Goat’, losing the dialect feel.  At times (and this may just be me), I also felt the English was a little softer in tone, the hard consonants and multi-syllabic nature of the German giving it a more masculine feel – but that’s really splitting hairs😉

IMG_5427A Whole Life is an interesting tale and one that brought to mind several other books which devote themselves to describing the life of their main character.  Quite apart from the slightly (!) lengthier longlisted title A Strangeness in My Mind, which looks at one man’s journey through an ever-changing Istanbul, there are two books I’ve read which share the ideas of a long life spent in the mountains.  One is Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones (translated by Lloyd Jones), set in Wales; the other is Catalan writer Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell).  While both these books do just as good a job as Seethaler’s novel in creating a portrait of a rural life, there is one, crucial difference: neither of these female-centred stories ever made the IFFP longlist.  Moving on…

While there’s nothing particularly unique about A Whole Life, it does what it does well, presenting the reader with a picture of a man whose life didn’t always go as he would have liked, but who never wasted his time complaining about it:

Wie alle Menschen hatte auch er während seines Lebens Vorstellungen und Träume in sich getragen.  Manches davon hatte er sich selbst erfüllt, manches war ihm geschenkt geworden.  Vieles war unerreichbar gebelieben, oder war ihm, kaum erreicht, wieder aus den Händen gerissen worden.  Aber er war immer noch da. (p.169)

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams.  Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him.  Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again.  But he was still here. (p.136)

His life may not have been a bed of roses, but for Andreas it was enough.  A life worth living, and telling:)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not for me.  While there’s nothing wrong with it, and I certainly think some of its detractors are being as harsh as its supporters are effusive, there’s nothing here that makes it stand out from dozens of other books with a similar structure.  Interesting and enjoyable, yes – special, no.

Will it make the shortlist?
I’d say that this might be a dark horse for the shortlist as it’s the kind of book that goes down well with judges – short, uncomplicated and an interesting look at a man and his life.  It’s not for everyone, but it may just get enough support to tip it over the edge…

And that’s it – our grand literary tour is over for another year:)  I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at the thirteen longlisted titles (and found a book or two you’d like to try yourself).  With the reading and reviewing done, it’s time to turn to the small matter of the shortlists as we get ever closer to finding our winner.  Very soon, we of the Shadow Panel will be announcing which six books made the cut, so please come back then to see who made the grade.

The real shortlist?  Well, I suppose we can look at that too if you’re interested😉